Recently, the State of Wisconsin’s Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls have been investigated by the FBI concerning allegations of sexual assault and child abuse. As Racine residents, we thank the county officials who had the foresight to create a youth corrections facility that allows incarcerated troubled youth to remain in this community- not exposed to the criminal activity that has been allowed in the state institutions.

We also acknowledge that the Racine county program saves tax dollars, protects the inmates and has better outcomes for our youth as measured by recidivism rates. Thanks to all who took the initiative to create, support and grow that program.

Some local pols have said that criticism of the state youth corrections programs are somehow political and disingenuous and that the incidents reported at those facilities are “isolated incidents.” That is simply not the case. Wisconsin’s youth corrections facilities are part of a deeply troubled Department of Corrections that fails to serve the citizens of our state. For example:

Wisconsin leads the country in the incarceration of black men. The U.S. average is 6.7 percent. Wisconsin’s rate is 12.8 percent. The second-highest state is Oklahoma with a rate of 9.7 percent.

Wisconsin imprisons Native American men at 7.6 percent, while the national average is 3.1 percent. Our state’s incarceration rates show that our criminal justice system is structurally racist.

Although Wisconsin and Minnesota are comparable in population and ethnic diversity, Wisconsin consistently has twice the number of state-housed prisoners and spends twice as much on corrections as our neighboring state. Strangely — our crime rates are not proportionally lower. Wisconsinites simply pay more and get less.

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Because 20 or so years ago, the Legislature passed “tough on crime” legislation — particularly so-called “Truth in Sentencing” laws, people who were convicted of crimes years ago remained in prison as they aged beyond being statistical risks for release into society. Not only are they no longer threats to the public, they remain the state’s fiscal responsibility. Medical care for some patients can cost more than $100,000. Have the compassion to let these old men and women go home.

As the state holds hearings to fill the position vacated by Secretary Walls, take note, legislators — you need to do a better job.

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Ron Thomas and Deacon Bob Bagley are co-chairs of the Racine Interfaith Coalition’s Restore Our Communities Committee.

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