For 128 people now in Wisconsin prisons, decades have passed since they were put away for life for crimes they committed as children.
Although it might have once been thought acceptable to punish such offenders by locking the door and throwing away the key, doubts are now looming. Part of this change in attitudes is the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding in recent years that children are “constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing” because of their greater potential for reform.
Wisconsin has begun to follow suit. Recent years have seen trial courts here moving away from life-sentencing practices that were common in the 1990s — a time when many juvenile offenders were labeled as super-predators and considered lost causes. Seeking to give some of them a second chance in their adult years, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office is now working with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee to review the cases of various people sentenced to life behind bars when they were young.
Their project, called the Public Interest Justice Initiative, started with recommendations from the Remington Center at UW Law School. The center found that, of the 128 people whose cases are being looked at, about half are from Milwaukee. Of those, 86 percent are people of color.
Forty-eight of the cases were brought to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm’s attention for review. If the process goes in an inmate’s favor, it could result in early release or parole.
“Almost everybody, including prosecutors doing homicide prosecutions (in the ‘90s) who are still in the office, when it’s all explained to them, the universal response is: It’s the right thing to do,” Chisholm said.
But the original plan would have come at a cost to the district attorney’s office. Chisholm said his office needed more resources to conduct complex and time-consuming case reviews. For that reason, he had asked county officials for money to hire an additional person to work on the project.
When Chisholm approached Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele about the new position, he was told that most departments had been asked to cut back and that there probably wouldn’t be money for his request. Abele instead recommended that Chisholm try working with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, a group that provides free legal services to city residents whose incomes fall within 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
Colleen Foley, the executive director of the organization, said Abele ultimately dipped into his own wallet to ensure the Legal Aid Society could hire an attorney-paralegal team to review various cases.
“The project pairs civil equal justice work with criminal justice reform work with the district attorney’s office,” Foley said.
Jourdan Glenn, an attorney at Legal Aid, and Rodrigo Sanchez, paralegal at Legal Aid, are already sifting through case files, summarizing relevant facts and law, and talking with inmates and victims’ families. Legal Aid will eventually give a synopsis of its work to the district attorney’s office, along with a recommendation as to whether or not any particular case under review should go back to court. Foley estimates it will take two years to go through all 48 cases.
Legal Aid’s synopses will be reviewed by four prosecutors from the district attorney’s office. Among other things, these officials will discuss how the crimes they are considering would most likely be prosecuted were they to take place today.
“If the answer is maybe 25 or 30 years but no more than that, and the person from the 1990s has already done 20 to 25 years, that gives you a basis to start discussing the appropriate disposition of the case,” Chisholm said. “That would require us to go back into court at some point for a sentence modification.”
That’s what Foley hopes to see happen as the project advances.
“I view success as these cases put back in front of the court where appropriate,” Foley said. “These 48 individuals are given a second chance and have an opportunity to live their life again.”
Chisholm said he’s well aware of how a modified sentence can affect victims and their families. He also noted that many studies have shown that people who have committed crimes become less likely to do so again as they age.
“There has to be some sense of proportionality in what we’re doing,” Chisholm said. “Our assumption now will be these are not the same people who committed the crime when they were 15, 16, 17 years old.”
If a court does decide to modify life sentences, the beneficiaries could still be subject to parole and other accountability measures. But they will also have an opportunity to go home, be with family and start over.
“This is part of rebuilding our community and reuniting families, and it’s good for our community overall,” Foley said. “It’s time for some innovative thinking about our prison system and who gets incarcerated for how long.”Follow @“WLJreporter”