Sortwell: Criminal Justice system at ‘breaking point’

Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 7, 2022

By State Rep. Shae Sortwell

The criminal justice system in Wisconsin is on the brink of collapse.

Did that get your attention? I hope it did. From the lawsuit filed in Brown County against Gov. Tony Evers for the shortage of public defenders, to the 40 percent vacancy rate for correctional officers at our maximum-security prisons forcing many officers to work double shifts, to assistant district attorneys juggling 500+ cases per year, to cases being delayed for months (or not prosecuted at all) because there simply isn’t the staffing —  our justice system is stretched to a snapping point. Police can’t even enforce “lesser” crimes like shoplifting that are robbing our shop owners blind because the district attorney can’t devote the time needed to prosecute these cases because he needs to prioritize high level cases such as murders.

This is not the time for half measures. This is not the time for politics. We need to be serious about fixing our issues.

I would like to offer several ideas to deal with these issues in the short-term and hopefully set us up for success going forward.

Idea 1: We need to close the outdated Green Bay Correctional Institution. The prison is in significant disrepair and costs too much to fix. We can build a new facility with a modern design that takes far fewer officers and is far safer. This should largely address our staffing issue and save money on overtime and facility repairs.

Idea 2: We need to double down on our successful drug and veteran diversion courts which have been very successful in setting people on the right path with fewer people reoffending. Did you know Brown County shut down a successful volunteer and probation court for first-time offenders roughly 15 years ago? We need to bring this back statewide in an effort to shut off the pipeline of future felons. This isn’t letting them off easy. Right now, we have thousands of misdemeanor crimes occurring every year without any accountability for the offender at all because of staffing issues in the system. This would provide accountability that we don’t have right now.

Idea 3: We need to pass Representative David Steffen’s one-time expungement bill for lower level offenders who have fully paid their debts to society. Once again, this isn’t about letting criminals off easy. They still need to fully pay for their crimes. But when the sentence and restitution are completed, we want them to be back in the workforce as productive members of society. I think it was President Reagan who once said the best social program is a job. If we want to keep people from returning to crime, then we ought to make it simple for them to get employed and pay their bills honestly.

Idea 4: We need bail reform. No, I’m not suggesting we simply let off people who break bail. But an honest discussion demands that you understand “bail jumping” goes far beyond not showing up to court and skipping town. It is violating any of the bail conditions set by a judge. Some of these violations are very serious and should be treated as such. Skipping town, witness tampering, further criminal activity, etc. would be examples of greater violations. But there are lesser ones, like inadvertently missing a hearing, which should be considered differently, enforced differently. These lesser cases could then be handled by our municipal courts, freeing up our circuit courts, DAs and public defenders. As part of this reform, we should also prevent the criminally low bail in cases of dangerous people like the Waukesha Christmas parade murderer and take their danger to society into account when setting bail.

Idea 5: Marijuana. Yes, marijuana. Now, I know we have a wide range of opinions on this issue. I don’t think the people of Wisconsin overall support full legalization but I think we can come to a common position we can all largely accept. First, we should implement a limited medical program. Like it or not, agree with it or not, there are a large number of people, including many veterans suffering from PTSD, illegally self-medicating with marijuana because they’ve found it works best for their health. We don’t need these people clogging up our criminal justice system even if we think they are in the wrong. Second, decriminalization. No, I am not talking about legalization, but we can remove the criminal penalties for the possession of lesser amounts and have municipal fines of, say, $100. This will allow our municipal courts to handle the issue and lessen the burden on our district courts, DA’s and public defenders.

Idea 6: We need to invest more money. Yes, that was eventually going to come up. Did you know that new assistant district attorneys and public defenders only make about $50,000? That makes it very difficult when starting pay at most law firms in Wisconsin is closer to $100,000. Their starting pay needs to be immediately increased to roughly $75,000 to be competitive at all. I know. Nobody wants to pay more money. But which crimes are you okay with us not enforcing? Which victims should not get justice? If we can’t fill these positions, we don’t have the staff to prosecute criminals even if we arrest them.

Now, I am sure these are not the only ideas that have merit and maybe we can’t get all of them done. But we do need to make significant changes. Don’t think this is coming from the idea I want to be “soft on crime.” This is from talking with DAs, public defenders, and others in the justice system. This is from my time on the Assembly Corrections Committee, Assembly Criminal Justice Committee, and Assembly Judiciary Committee. These issues have been brewing for years and they need to be addressed now. Make no mistake: If we fail to act, law and order will suffer. We will suffer. To quote one Republican district attorney, “We are at a breaking point.” Let’s not fail to act. Republican and Democrat, we must act now.

State Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) represents Wisconsin’s 2nd Assembly District.

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One response to “Sortwell: Criminal Justice system at ‘breaking point’”

  1. JilC Avatar

    Totally agree, changes need to be made to make Wisconsin a safer and better place for everyone. Governor Evers is not doing his job to help and protect the citizens of Wisconsin.

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