May 7, 2015

Invest in people, not prisons

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

In politics, often the things that make for the best sound bites make for the worst public policy. In the coming weeks and months, this is likely to play out as part of a debate over how to deal with our society’s most violent criminals.

In corrections policy, you will often hear politicians tell you that we should “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” in an effort to get “tough on crime.” Yet, according to an MSNBC report, imprisonment in America increased 500 percent since 1972 due in part to bumper sticker policies intended to clean up impoverished communities.  

Such is the case with mandatory minimum sentencing, which ascribes a mandatory minimum sentence to individuals convicted of certain crimes. Some supporters may argue that mandatory minimum sentences will reduce the racial disparity in sentencing because it would create the fairest means of doling out punishment. Essentially, this is an “if you do the crime, you do the time” mentality.  However, the 2010 Census shows that Latino offenders made up 38.3 percent of all mandatory minimum sentencing crimes in America, while African-American offenders made up 31.5 percent. Yet, despite making up 72 percent of the US population, white offenders made up just 27.4 percent of mandatory minimum sentencing crimes. Clearly, we need to fix discrepancies in policing, not sentencing.

Additionally, supporters may argue mandatory minimum sentences targeted at violent criminals, such as the bill currently in circulation at the State Capitol, acts as a deterrent for criminal activity. Yet, if this is the case, why would the bill in question end July 1, 2020? The answer is simple, even supporters of the bill aren’t convinced it will deter crime. Our prisons shouldn’t be a part of a social science experiment. We should not sacrifice the freedom of our citizens for the convenience of prison industrial complex.

We call it the Department of Corrections, not the department of incarceration for a reason. I firmly believe that mandatory minimum sentences are the legislative equivalent of failing to see the forest through the trees. Prison isn’t the answer. Prison is where we put people society has failed. And our record of failing people, particularly people of color, is increasing at too fast a pace.

When we lock up criminals and throw away the key, we are also throwing away taxpayers money that could be better spent investing in our people. That’s why I support a new innovative approach to social justice called Sustainable Milwaukee. There is no silver bullet answer to fixing our problems of crime, poverty and educational gaps in our society. They are all interconnected. To solve these problems, we need a bold comprehensive approach that will tackle these issues at their root.

At every stage, Sustainable Milwaukee invests in people by making investments in literacy, economic opportunity, environment, agriculture, technology and health. Criminals are most often examples of our society’s failures. Crime is born out of poverty, ignorance, ambivalence and desperation. While some want to throw the book at criminals, I want to give them the book and teach them to read.

Politicians will never solve crime by locking people up and throwing away the key. And when they do so, they are just tearing families and communities apart. While some will advocate for mandatory minimums that will just result in lengthier prison terms for people of color, I will instead fight for a comprehensive approach with wrap-around services that tackle each and every aspect of our society, to lift us all up. After all, a rising tide raises all boats. Right now, too many of Milwaukee’s boats are sinking.