October 8, 2015

Senator Taylor and the State of the Justice System

Taylor to introduce bills aimed at improving fairness in the justice process

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

A few years ago, I chaired the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Corrections.  In that role, I hosted the first-ever Wisconsin “State of the Justice System” tour. My colleagues on the committee and I traveled the state to hosting public and informational hearings.  We were able to receive testimony from those on the frontline of services and the administration of our justice system, correction facilities, and advocacy groups.  District attorneys, local law enforcement, judges, probation officers, concerned family members and a host of others, shed light on what was working in our justice system and what areas needed work. 

We then went to correctional facilities and met with wardens, correctional officers, and incarcerated residents to continue our quest to understand how effectively, as a state, we administer justice policies and practices.  The level of candor and access that we received was only rivaled by the passion that we encountered, when individuals at all levels of the justice system, talked about achieving the best practices in the delivery of services.  Most involved wanted the state to have more successful outcomes in equipping incarcerated residents in their return to society.

As a result of those hearings, I walked away with a list of measures that needed to be addressed regarding the state of our justice system.  Over the years, the lessons learned on that committee and in my current role as a member of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, have not only influenced but directed much of my legislative work.  Whether it was the need for drug courts, the manner in which canteen services were provided to those incarcerated, re-entry programming and services, or addressing disparate treatment in arrests, charging, and sentencing, I have looked at it all. 

Working with local and national organizations, such as The Council of State Governments Justice Center, law enforcement and elected officials, at every level of government we have begun to see a shift.  Ideologies regarding truth-in-sentencing, mandatory minimums, inequity in drug possession sentencing, and “three-strikes and your out” are being reviewed and evaluated. I think it’s fair to say that different motivating factors have brought about this openness to rethink and change course.  For some involved, it is about fairness.  For others, it is about the staggering costs of corrections in state budgets.  And yet, others are floored at the increasing numbers of Americans that are behind bars.  Either way, there is positive movement underway in the way we deal with the concept and execution of justice.

As a part of that movement, I am rolling out a series of justice related bills in the coming weeks.  In tackling tough issues, to include victim’s rights, DNA expungement when found innocent of a crime, voting rights restoration, banning the box on applications asking about criminal records, and the formation of an independent pardon council, I have drafted legislation seeking to address these areas.

I will also be introducing bills to address what some refer to as “Taxation by Citation”.  This is what many local municipalities, in Ferguson MO and other states, have been accused of doing to supplement their budgets.  The result has been over policing, unnecessary citations and targeted groups such as African-Americans, having a disproportionate amount of fines and warrants.

Further bills will address No-Knock warrants, removing information from the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website (CCAP) and limiting access to certain information placed on the website. From improvements surrounding body cameras, to officer involved deaths, microstamping bullets, and parental notification of any police contact that is had with their children, nothing is off the table when it comes to making our system of justice work as equitably as possible for all Wisconsin residents.  If you have ideas about legislation that you would like to see or think would improve our justice system, you are encouraged to call our office at (414) 342-7176.  Together, we can make a system that works for our community.