Opinion: To Err Is Human

Milwaukee Courier

By Senator, Lena C. Taylor

Within three years of being released, 30% of WI inmates will end up back behind bars. It’s called the Department of Corrections for a reason.

When we incarcerate someone a second time, it means we failed. Crime doesn’t pay; it costs. We spend over $30,000 per prisoner every year. It’s a big reason why the department costs us $2.5 billion.

Last June, I was appointed to the Recidivism Reduction Committee, a legislative study committee that brought fellow legislators and members of the public together to brainstorm solutions to reduce recidivism.

Last week, we met as a group and approved more than a dozen recommendations. Here are just a few:

  • Medication Supply after Release: You can’t be expected to find a job if you’re not healthy. This recommendation ensures that inmate patients are supplied with at least four weeks of their prescription medication upon release.
  • Expanding Windows to Work: Windows to Work is a great program that helps incarcerated individuals transition back to society.
  • Trauma-Informed Care: In order to reform, we need to heal old wounds, not create new ones. With the DOCS, DHS, and DCF, we will work together to pilot a trauma-informed care program for incarcerated individuals.
  • Supporting the work of the Integrated Reentry & Employment Strategies: Several stakeholders are participating in one of the most exciting pilot projects to help those coming out of prison stay out while successfully transitioning back into society.
  • The Council of State Government Justice Center’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative: I had the pleasure of working with the Justice Center in 2009 and I’m looking forward to helping bring the industry’s leading expert at controlling rising prison costs by reducing recidivism back into Wisconsin to help our state get smart on crime, not just tough on crime.

These are all valuable changes I will work to see made. In addition to the work we did through the committee, here is a sneak peek at just a few of my bills I plan to reintroduce in the coming months:

  • Banning the box: You shouldn’t be defined by your crime. Banning the box that requires job applicants to disclose whether or not they’ve been convicted of a felony would ensure a level playing field for everyone.
  • Collateral Consequences: I’m a former public defender, so believe me when I tell you that far too many people don’t know they will pay the price for their conviction for long after they are out of prison. One of the biggest barriers to reentry into society is that you can’t get professionally licensed for many industries for years and years after you’ve completed your sentence.
  • Expungement: Our law is broken when it comes to giving someone a chance to wipe the slate clean. Our law only allows you to be eligible for expungement if you committed the offense when you are under 25-years-old and request expungement at the time of sentencing. Expungement is not a guarantee; you have to earn it.

Why would we limit those who could earn it? Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a tough love kind of woman. But, my heart goes out to people on their last leg because the deck is stacked against them. We have it in us to help others, and that’s exactly what we should do.

Like the saying goes, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” All of us are capable of making mistakes. We’re all capable of forgiveness, too. I hope you’ll join me in walking the walk to ensure others have a more successful reentry after prison.

The Legislative Black caucus will be featuring a separate issue each week of Black History Month this February. We will focus on criminal justice reform the fourth week of the month and we will hold a lobby day at the State Capitol the final day of the month. I hope you will join me.