September 3, 2015

The case against mandatory minimum sentences for violent felons

By Sen. Lena Taylor

Gun crimes in Milwaukee are on the rise, and something has to be done to stop it. That is something we can all agree upon. But how?

Back in May, I wrote a guest column for the Milwaukee Courier anticipating a mandatory minimum sentencing debate at the Capitol saying, “…often the things that make for the best sound bites make for the worst public policy.”

Last week, that’s exactly what happened. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on Assembly Bill 220, authored by Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-XXX) and Rep. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee).

The goal of the bill is simple, to curb violent crime with use of a gun through longer prison terms. The bill would apply a mandatory minimum sentence to anyone with a felony record who’s been out of prison five years or less and commits another “violent crime” while in possession of a gun. The punishment would be approximately 3-8 years on top of the sentence they would normally get for committing that crime.

Sounds like a slam dunk, right? That’s what some people want you to believe because it pulls on people’s heart strings to be “tough on crime.” Additionally, it’s a lot easier to be tough on crime than to be smart on crime. But does locking them up and throwing away the key actually work? After all, we incarcerate twice as many people in Wisconsin than Minnesota. We incarcerate almost twice as many black men than the national average, which is why more than half of African American men in their 30’s in Milwaukee have served time. So, does putting people behind bars cause less violent crimes? Well, if that was the case, then why is Milwaukee’s murder rate twice as high this year as it was last year?

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I asked tough questions about this bill of both the authors, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. I believe in data driven strategies. If you want me to support something, give me hard numbers to prove that your idea will result in desirable outcomes.

When I asked for numbers, Mayor Barrett said, "We can talk for 50 hours about data. My data is -- (this criminal) committed a violent crime. And he`s using a gun. What`s there to talk about?" That’s a great soundbite. The problem is, there’s a lot to talk about.  

There are four major problems with AB-220. First, the bill ignores the fact that we already have a punishment for a felon carrying a gun, which is up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Current law wisely gives judges the discretion to determine punishment because they have all the facts available to them. Whereas, mandatory minimum sentence are automatic, taking judicial discretion out of the hands of judges, just like truth in sentencing takes discretion out of the hands of parole boards, and we all know how ineffective and expensive that’s been.

A second problem is that violent crimes under the bill, while terrible often have nothing to do with gun violence. Under AB-220, certain food, drug or household item tampering can be considered a violent crime. The bill also covers mental abuse of a child, arson, mayhem and Molotov cocktails.

Third, legislating like this tugs on heart strings, but doesn’t take into account the purse strings attached to these laws. It costs approximately $33,000 per year to incarcerate a person in Wisconsin. Adding between three to eight years to a prison sentence will cost an additional roughly $100,000 to $250,000 per inmate. Just ten incarcerations under this proposed law could cost Wisconsin somewhere between $1 million and $2.5 million. Can you imagine the jobs we could create and the reading programs for children we could fund in Milwaukee with millions of dollars?

Finally, AB-220 isn’t data driven. In Racine, they invested money in converting foreclosed on homes in high crime neighborhoods into Community Organized Policing Houses (COP Houses). The city that was formerly known as Wisconsin’s murder capital has reduced its violent crime by 70% by using strategies such as these and other data driven solutions. Whereas, supporters are so unsure that AB-220 will work that they even included an end date in 2020. Essentially, this bill is an experiment. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we should be experimenting on our people.

Assembly Bill 220 is a great tool to pull on heart strings, but the data doesn’t support that it will deter crime. If we are going to spend millions of dollars, let’s put it into community oriented policing and reentry programs that are proven to reduce crime.

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