September 18, 2007

Shining a Light on Justice in Wisconsin

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Justice isn’t a passive thing.  It requires all of us to actively guard, review, and at times critique its application.  When injustice finds even the tiniest foothold in our system, then, like a weed, it has the ability to take root and grow, destroying the very people it was designed to protect.  As a community, we can never turn a blind eye to justice.

For the past five months, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Corrections has been traveling throughout Wisconsin—holding hearings, touring correctional facilities, and finding out, first-hand, what issues face our residents has they attempt to navigate our justice system.  

As Chair of the committee, I have had the opportunity to meet with individuals working within the system, like judges and court staff, corrections personnel, and social service agencies providing assistance to users of the system. 

I have talked directly with inmates from ten different facilities, listened to the views of families impacted by the system, and been encouraged by the work that many committed individuals are doing around the state to better serve the judicial needs of our residents.

As a committee we’ve been told about the need to improve access to justice for all Wisconsinites.  Many came to voice their concern about the number of individuals walking into a courtroom unrepresented by legal counsel, or to question decisions to charge 17 year olds as adults.  Others stood up to discuss the effect of Truth In Sentencing laws on prison overcrowding, and to testify about the overwhelmed court system and the need for more resources.

Questions were raised about the parole process and about the lack of treatment alternatives and programming for inmates who will eventually be returned to the community.  We listened to the comments of those concerned about community policing, the sex offender registry, and the epidemic problems of crack cocaine and crystal meth.

In short, our work has cast a bright light upon the state’s current justice system.  It would be easier to look away from the issues that light has shown us, rather than tackling them head on.  We will not, however, turn a blind eye to the delivery of justice on my watch.

As the State of the Justice System Tour nears completion, the committee’s work is just beginning.  As a group, we will review what we’ve learned and prepare a report outlining our findings.  Most importantly, we will make recommendations about ways to fix the problems in the system that we’ve been told about.  Some of our recommendations may involve legislation; others will simply require us to change the way we think about issues in the justice system.  I ask all of you to join me in searching out injustice and ensuring that the scales of justice remain balanced.