Addressing community re-entry for ex-offenders in Wisconsin

October 29, 2015

Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections Reentry Director Dr. Sylvia Jackson (right), Milwaukee Area Workforce and Investment Board President Earl Buford, Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections Region 3 District Chief Neil Thoreson, and Milwaukee County District Attorney John T. Chisholm at the Community Brainstorming and Breakfast Forum on Addressing Re-entry for Ex-offenders in Wisconsin panel discussion held October 24 at St. Matthew CME Church, 2944 N. 9th St.

By Steve Waring

Special to The Milwaukee Times

Milwaukee is the pilot city for an innovative program designed to change the Department of Corrections from an institution where individuals are punished to a place where inmates receive job training and counseling, so that when the person is released, they will be less likely to re-offend after release. Wisconsin still has a long way to go, said state Senator Lena C. Taylor. “But we’re making progress.”

Senator Taylor was one of five panelists for the monthly Community Brainstorming Conference and breakfast on October 24 at St. Matthew CME Church, 2944 N. 9th St. The theme of the discussion was “Addressing Re-entry for Ex-offenders in Wisconsin.” About 1 in 8 black men of working age in Milwaukee County have served some time in the state’s correctional facilities, according to a recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Each year 2,400 inmates are released in Milwaukee County, according to Wisconsin Department of Corrections Re-entry Director Dr. Sylvia Jackson.

“We want them released with new skills so they can find employment instead of returning to crime,” she said. “We are using evidence-based practices throughout an individual’s sentence.” Dr. Jackson said that since January 1,500 individuals have been released with housing, access to health care and assistance with responsibilities such as opening a checking account already in place. Until two years ago when supervision was transferred from the sheriff, the County Jail resembled a military barracks complete with bullhorns, said Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. In the last two years, inmates have access to education and work opportunities. Access to mental health services and the food have also improved, he said, adding he had attended graduation ceremonies where inmates received their GED, and were visibly emotional about having achieved that milestone. Abele said offenders released since the changes have been implemented are much less likely to re-offend. The County Jail also has a job center where inmates can search for work, according to Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board President and CEO Earl Buford. He said his job was to set up apprenticeship programs for inmates with cooperative employers.

The inmate learns new skills while serving his or her sentence. Upon release they have a job that pays a living wage waiting for them, he said; adding that Milwaukee is the only urban city currently participating in this pilot project. The new approach has required parole officers to change the way they serve ex-offenders, said Wisconsin Department of Corrections Region 3 Division of Community Corrections Chief Neil Thoreson. He said as a new parole agent he learned how to file forms, but he did not receive training in empathy or communicating with ex-offenders. “I expect my agents to have a different sort of interaction other than ‘you’re a problem’. We don’t want to put people in a situation where they are likely to fail.”

“What is happening in Milwaukee is recognized nationally as a model,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Noting that the audience included a number of judges running for re-election, members of the city council, county supervisors, state Representative LaTonya Johnson and other elected officials, Mayor Barrett said the new approach enjoyed widespread bipartisan support. “This is a new vision of what public safety means,” said Milwaukee County District Attorney John T. Chisholm. “The old system of increasing incarceration is no longer sustainable.”

A large number of individuals lined up to question the panel. One of the first was a parole officer who said she had been paying for a hotel room out of her funds for a man who was released last week after serving a 15-year sentence for a sexual offense. She challenged Mayor Barrett to defend a controversial law recently passed in Milwaukee which effectively left sexual offenders with no place to live. Mayor Barrett said the law was passed because other municipalities in Milwaukee County had already passed similar laws leaving Milwaukee to provide housing for all sexual offenders who had been convicted of a sexual offense in Milwaukee County. Mayor Barrett said he would try to work with the parole agent and her client. “If the offense was committed in Milwaukee they should come back to Milwaukee,” he said, “but we’re not going to become the dumping ground for county sex offenders.”