Thursday, January 31, 2008

Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice: Report Delayed Again

We have been following with considerable interest the work of the Wisconsin Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice, including run-ins with a couple of the more extreme members: State Senator Spencer Coggs and Tamara Grigsby, State Representative.

The report, the release of which was delayed once, was supposed to come out today.

But in fact it has been delayed until Monday. As of right now, no commission member (and this includes co-chairs Coggs and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray) has seen the final report -- the version they are supposed to sign off on.

This is symptomatic of a general lack of organization that has marked the Commission’s work.

People who are hoping for a broad gage attack on “racism” in the Wisconsin criminal justice system are going to be disappointed. Although the Commission got a lot of anecdotal testimony about this or that instance of racial unfairness, they had no good evidence of widespread and systematic racism, and a sensible majority refrained for making any overblown claims.

The unwillingness of the Commission to make overbroad claims of systemic racism was a matter of some disappointment among some members. Judge Maxine White and Grigsby (who wanted a strong statement she could carry back “to my community”) fall into this category, as does (to a somewhat lesser degree) co-chair Coggs.

That Grigsby seems to define the “community” as people with a grudge against the cops, as opposed to people in her district who are afraid to go outside for fear of being robbed or assaulted is a matter of considerable interest.

If some of the black members acted like race hustlers, several others did not, including co-chair Wray, lawyer Stan Davis and WHEDA Executive Director Antonio Riley.

Add to this people like Brian Blanchard, Dane County District Attorney and John Chisholm, Milwaukee County District Attorney, and you get a moderate and relatively sensible majority.

As for recommendations, look for some very mildly liberal and sensible ones. For example, expect considerable concern for helping recently released offenders get back into the workforce. One impediment to this is their difficulty in getting a driver’s license, a situation that deserves to be addressed.

We also wouldn’t be surprised to find a recommendation to beef up public defender’s offices, and to likewise improve the system of probation and parole.

Further, expect a call for better monitoring and data collection, along the lines of what the Vera Institute has been doing in the office of the Milwaukee District Attorney. Vera found no racial bias in decisions to prosecute, but continued monitoring, and extending monitoring to other jurisdictions, is clearly a good idea.

We have long said that the worst case scenario would be for the Commission to claim sweeping racial bias in the system, which might produce strong pressures (formal and informal) for a kind of quota system to “get the numbers right.” That would hurt people in Wauwatosa and Glendale a bit, and hurt people in Mequon and Waukesha hardly at all. But it would devastate Milwaukee’s inner city.

That “worst case” appears not to have happened.

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