Incarceration: Behind the Bench – by Robert Agnew

 

Excerpt from “Voices From Inside: Wisconsin Prisoners Speak Out (pg.28)”- a project of WISDOM, January 2014. Click here for information about how to get a print copy.

          Behind the bench picThis excerpt is noteworthy and deserves a reader’s attention for a few reasons. On the surface, you have a fair-minded judge speaking in favor of alternatives to jail, which should not be overlooked. Perhaps more important, is the underlying message emphasizing the reality of how sending non-violent offenders to jail affects their families. Witnessing a parent and then years later his/her child before this judge’s bench, appears to make him aware of his contribution to the “fixed” system in which he plays.

Every time someone is sent to prison or jail, we not only impact that person but their families—mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and extended family members. As a judge, I understand some defendants need to be placed in prison or jail because of the risk they present to our community, or to send a message to others about consequences for their behavior, or to simply punish. But we know through research that we would be better served, both short and long term, to help those who are not dangerous by providing appropriate treatment in the community. I have been a Circuit Court Judge for 14 years, presiding in Family, Criminal, and Juvenile Court. Prior to being on the bench, I practiced law in Children’s Court. I have represented parents and, unfortunately, I have routinely encountered their children in the adult system.

The cycle of dysfunction continues because we haven’t effectively intervened. I serve on the Planning and Policy Advisory, Effective Justice Strategies Subcommittee of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Treatment Alternatives Diversion Advisory Committee, and the Evidenced-Based Subcommittee of the Wisconsin Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Although I am not speaking on behalf of any of these committees, each supports the fundamental proposition that we as a system should support evidenced-based decision-making. The research confirms my personal view that we as a society do a disservice to our children, families, communities, and, yes, the defendants, with the number of people incarcerated. My experience reveals little meaningful interventions for a number of those incarcerated. We would be better served to invest in programs to empower people to change their behavior, such as cognitive programming and specialty courts for substance abuse issues.

We will still need to place people in jail or prison, but this should be a measured result with greater emphasis on getting people to be law abiding, taxpaying fathers and mothers who instill good moral values in their children.

 

—Carl Ashley, Milwaukee County Circuit Court