Everything we’ve heard about preventing crime in our neighborhoods would lead us to believe that we simply need to lock more people away. If that was true, as home to America’s most incarcerated zip code, 53206, you’d expect Milwaukee to be a shining example of a safe community. But despite this stratospheric incarceration rate, 53206 alone represents about 10% of the city’s crime — so, clearly, our assumptions are fundamentally flawed.
Last month, the Milwaukee Common Council passed a resolution encouraging the state Legislature to consider a new approach for reforming our broken juvenile justice system. We called for more investments on the front end so that fewer Wisconsinites enter the corrections system in the first place. We recommended ending mandatory minimum, reforming the juvenile justice system in Milwaukee County to ensure that youth receive counseling and rehabilitation, and ending the practice of sending kids to Lincoln Hills, a dangerous facility that has been under federal investigation and facing multiple lawsuits over allegations of horrific treatment of children.
We must listen to young people who overcame the turmoil of the juvenile justice system caused in their lives. Marcus Williams recently wrote about his own experience at Lincoln Hills saying, “When you’re treated like a criminal, you begin to see yourself that way as well.” He noted that the emphasis on punishment instead of prevention “causes irreparable damage not only to a young person’s development and growth, but to their self-worth and dignity.”
Despite the experiences of kids like Marcus and the growing consensus that community-based approaches are the right way to reduce incarceration and violence, some elected officials still support blindly locking people away and hoping that crime just disappears. They are supporting the Victim Prevention Package — legislation that would send more youths to Lincoln Hills for more crimes and for longer periods of time, instead of getting to the root of their issues and focusing on prevention and rehabilitation.
Like my colleagues on the council, I recognize that crime is a major issue in our districts, and am committed to working with them to solve it. We must be sensitive because these issues affect law-abiding citizens in our districts, but we also represent those who have been in the juvenile justice system and know firsthand that the current approach offers no real solution.
We must address the unmet needs of Milwaukee’s kids to produce positive, safe outcomes for everyone: young people, their families, our communities and even the taxpayers who shoulder the estimated $30 million cost per year of running these ineffective, treacherous facilities, that only cause more harm, trauma and increase the likelihood that youth will re-offend and end up in the adult system.
As taxpayers and as community members, we all benefit when we invest in programs that lift up each person and give everyone the chance to positively contribute to our society. The system is most effective when we proactively invest in things such as quality education and trauma-informed care, and connect more people to living wage jobs that stabilize families and neighborhoods.
If lawmakers are serious about making neighborhoods safe, they must look beyond the outdated incarceration mind-set to solve our communities’ problems. A preventative approach to public safety, centered on the root causes of poverty and crime, should be everyone’s goal. That would truly be a victim prevention package.
Cavalier Johnson is Milwaukee’s 2nd District Alderman.