Tag Archives: reform

Politics, shootings undercut criminal justice overhaul in Congress

Hopes for overhauling the nation’s criminal justice system have faded in Congress this year, undercut by a rash of summer shootings involving police and the pressure of election-year politics.

Republicans, including Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, had joined forces with Democrats in hopes of revising the 1980s and ’90s-era federal “tough on crime” laws by reducing some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and giving judges greater discretion in sentencing. The goal is to reduce overcrowding in the nation’s prisons and save taxpayer dollars.

In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

The bipartisan group encountered fierce opposition from some Republicans who argue reform could increase crime and pose a greater danger to law enforcement.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump hasn’t commented on the pending legislation but has dubbed himself the “law-and-order candidate” for what he calls a country in crisis, with terrorism in cities and attacks on police.

With Republicans deeply divided, one man could break the legislative deadlock: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has not indicated whether he supports the effort.

If inaction is telling, McConnell so far has declined to put the legislation to vote, suggesting he doesn’t want a messy intraparty fight before the November election.

Unlike McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., strongly supports an overhaul and may bring up a series of bipartisan House bills in September to reduce mandatory sentences and boost rehabilitation programs.

An unusual coalition — President Barack Obama, the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Koch Industries — says the system is broken and supports changes. Obama has made it a priority in his last year.

But Ryan and Obama have a tough job in winning over McConnell, who must deal with opponents such as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and a handful of other Senate Republicans.

Supporters are also battling the calendar.

Congress is only in session a few weeks before Obama leaves office.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supports the effort, but if she wins it’s unclear whether there would be momentum for the overhaul in her busy first year in office.

Cotton calls the Senate bill “a dangerous experiment in criminal leniency” that would let violent criminals out of prison.

Supporters say the legislation would do the opposite, making communities safer by focusing on rehabilitation and preserving police resources. Mark Holden of Koch Industries, which has backed the Senate and House bills, points to states that have successfully put similar reforms in place.

Proponents argue that there’s no direct connection between the overhaul and this summer’s shootings of black men in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge — or the shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge — since the measures would primarily deal with incarceration of low-level drug offenders and rehabilitation programs. Opponents counter that reducing mandatory minimum sentences could further endanger law enforcement.

“If you talk to actual officers on the street, almost all of them will tell you their job has gotten more dangerous,” said the Hudson Institute’s John Walters, who was drug czar under President George W. Bush. “The current debate about this isn’t going to give them a voice.”

The House Judiciary Committee is looking at separate action on policing and has created a bipartisan working group on police accountability and aggression toward law enforcement. After meetings in Detroit on Tuesday, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., predicted criminal justice reform will eventually pass.

On policing, Goodlatte said mistrust between law enforcement and the communities will not be solved overnight. “However, this should not deter us from devoting urgent attention to this matter of national importance,” he said.

Republicans who back criminal justice overhaul point to the support of several law enforcement groups and say they are working the party’s grassroots, bringing the message that changes could save billions of federal dollars and help criminals from returning to prison.

“There’s no question that it’s very hard to draw the lines on the conservative movement and where people are on this,” says Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who is working with a group called Right on Crime.

At the heart of the Republican debate on the issue is a philosophical difference between advocates who say rehabilitation and shorter sentences could lower recidivism and opponents who say it will let criminals out and not do enough to stem crime. Advocates point to a dip in overall crime in the U.S., while opponents point to rising crime in some major cities.

The Senate bill was introduced last October, and Cornyn and other supporters revised it this spring to try and win over reluctant GOP colleagues. But Cornyn acknowledged in July that the House would have to move first on its legislation, which is similar but not identical to the Senate bill.

Some advocates are hoping the legislation could be passed as part of the typical last-minute horse-trading in the “lame duck” session in between the election and the end of the year.

To get momentum, “we need a House vote in September, and we need a big House vote in September,” says Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network.

Supreme Court deadlocks on immigration case

Karla Cano faces uncertainty. She had expected to qualify for deferred action under the Obama administration’s executive orders on immigration. But a tied decision by the U.S. Supreme Court creates uncertainty for Cano and her family.

“All that is unjust about my situation will continue,” said Cano, 21, a senior at Mount Mary University and the mother of a 2-year-old son.

“I am in college so I can have a career helping others, but I cannot start a career like that without work authorization,” she said. “We just want to help this country and support our families like anyone else.”

The court on June 23 deadlocked on President Barack Obama’s executive actions taken to shield millions living in the United States from deportation.

The 4–4 tie means the next president and a new Congress will determine any change in U.S. immigration policy. The president said the court’s deadlock “takes us further from the country we aspire to be.”

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president, called the court ruling unacceptable and pledged to “do everything possible under the law to go further to protect families.”

The dispute before the eight justices — the case was heard in April, after the death of Antonin Scalia — was over the legality of the administration’s orders creating “deferred action for parents of Americans and lawful permanent residents” or DAPA and expanding “deferred action for childhood arrivals” or DACA.

Basically the actions would have provided protection from deportation and three-year work permits to about 5 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, as well as undocumented people who came to the United States before the age of 16.

The president announced the orders in 2014 and, soon after, they were challenged by 26 states led by Republican governors, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Federal district and appeals courts sided with the states and said the executive office lacked the authority to issue orders shielding immigrants from deportation.

The high court tie means the appeals court ruling stands. But the ruling in United States v. Texas did not set any landmark standards in the dispute over immigration.

The U.S. Justice Department brought the case to the Supreme Court, seeking to overturn the appeals court decision.

The American Civil Liberties Union was among the many groups to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said, the “4–4 tie has a profound impact on millions of American families whose lives will remain in limbo and who will now continue the fight. In setting the DAPA guidelines, President Obama exercised the same prosecutorial discretion his predecessors have wielded without controversy and ultimately the courts should hold that the action was lawful.”

Reaction from the U.S. progressive community was swift and compassionate.

“This split decision deals a severe blow to millions of immigrant families who have already been waiting more than 18 months for the DAPA and DACA programs to be implemented,” said Alianza Americas’ executive director Oscar Chacón. “The cold fact is that millions of parents and children will go to bed tonight knowing once again that their families could be torn apart at any moment.”

At the Center for Popular Democracy, co-executive director Ana Maria Archila said, “If the highest court in the land cannot find a majority for justice and compassion, there is something truly broken in our system of laws, checks and balances.”

In Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera held news conferences in Green Bay, Madison and in Milwaukee. LULAC, Centro Hispano and the Southside Organizing Committee also were involved.

“This is very sad for me,” said Jose Flores, a factory worker, father of four and also the president of Voces de la Frontera. “I have been waiting and fighting for reform like DAPA for years. But we are not giving up. I refuse … to shrink back into the shadows.”

Cano, a member of Voces de la Frontera, said, “I am not giving up on the struggle. We need more people to get involved in the upcoming elections, because this decision shows the importance of both the presidential and U.S. congressional elections and whom the next president will nominate to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Military might: After ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ reform is still needed

Do ask.

Do tell.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan wants ex-service members to tell about the harm caused by discharges under the now defunct ban against gays in the military.

And the Wisconsin Democrat wants Congress to ask about the harm caused by the ban years after the its repeal.

Pocan and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., want the House Committee on Armed Services to examine the challenges faced by gays and lesbians discharged from the military.

Recently, however, the committee refused to hold a hearing on the bill.

A year ago this summer, the congressmen introduced the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which would help former service members discharged solely due to their sexual orientation correct their military records to reflect their honorable service and to restore benefits they earned.

The bill, according to Pocan’s office, has 113 co-sponsors in the House, including four Republicans. A companion measure in the Senate has 38 co-sponsors.

In a letter this spring to Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who is the chair of the Armed Services Committee, Pocan and Rangel wrote, “Since World War II, more than 100,000 individuals are estimated to have been discharged from the military due to their sexual orientation. Today, thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans are tarnished with discharge statuses other than honorable. This status affects both their access to benefits they have earned from their service and their opportunities in civilian life, potentially hindering employment opportunities and the right to vote.”

Pocan’s office said even gay service members who received honorable discharges may face discrimination because the “Narrative Reason” for their discharge may refer to “homosexual conduct,” “homosexual act” or “homosexual marriage.”

In the 1992 race for president, Bill Clinton campaigned on a platform that included a vow to lift a ban against gays in the military — a prohibition applied in various ways over the years. But Clinton faced stiff opposition in Congress and eventually offered a compromise — “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The policy allowed for gay people to serve if they didn’t tell, and military leaders were prohibited from asking about sexual orientation.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was not administered as Clinton proposed, and investigations about sexual orientation continued, with service members still losing careers and benefits as had happened for decades before.

The ban was repealed in 2011, allowing gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve openly in the Armed Forces.

A year after the repeal, a study from the Palm Center, an independent research institute in San Francisco, found:

• Only two service members, both chaplains, were identified as having left the military as a result of the repeal.

• The Pentagon reported not a single episode of violence associated with the repeal.

• Pentagon data show recruitment and retention remained robust after the repeal.

• Survey data revealed that service-wide, troops reported the same level of morale and readiness after the repeal as they did before.

• Data also showed trust among troops improved following the repeal.

The transgender front

Still, nearly five years later, the struggle for full equality in the military continues with the campaign to remove barriers to transgender people serving openly.

Last summer, this effort was boosted by a vote of the American Medical Association, which adopted a resolution finding “there is no medically valid reason to exclude transgender individuals” from U.S. military service and urged that transgender service members be provided with necessary medical care “according to the same medical standards that apply to non-transgender personnel.”

The AMA also said the anti-transgender policy is out of date.

Four U.S. Surgeons General — Drs. Joycelyn Elders, David Satcher, Regina Benjamin and Kenneth Moritsugu — reached the same conclusion.

This spring, a Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon and first reported on by The New York Times found that repealing the ban on transgender service would not negatively impact the Armed Forces and would lead to no more than 129 of the military’s million-plus troops seeking transition-related care each year.

Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, said the Rand report confirmed his institute’s research on the issue. “Inclusive policy will not compromise readiness, will not be costly and will not be difficult to formulate or implement,” he said.

There have been hints the Defense Department, which created a working group to examine the issue, could announce its plan for allowing open transgender service this spring.

Congress likely would play a role in any reforms, and the House Committee on Armed Services would get an early review.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state is the ranking Democratic member on that committee. He’s a supporter of lifting the ban on transgender service, as well as an advocate of equal and fair treatment of gay service members and those discharged because of their orientation.

Patients, physicians lobby for federal medical marijuana bill 

Patients and their physicians lobbied Congress in late March, pressing for a vote on legislation aimed at removing marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs, which are defined as having no medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana and four states allow recreational use of marijuana. However, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, creating complications in the states that have legalized use and erecting barriers to reform in other states, such as Wisconsin.

A bipartisan group in Congress is advocating passage of the Compassionate Access, Research, Expansion and Respect States Act.

Citizens who lobbied for the measure on March 22 included medical marijuana patients, academics, pot advocates and physicians.

At a news conference, they heard from U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, a Democrat from the District of Columbia. “If marijuana is a gateway drug, then virtually every college student is on her way to heroin or worse,” she said. “The Congress of the United States keeps us from moving ahead on understanding medical marijuana, what are its values, its true benefits.”

Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a sponsor of the CARERS Act, added, “Republicans and Democrats agree: federal law on medical marijuana is outdated, out of touch and needs to change. … Keeping marijuana on Schedule I, which is a category for drugs with no medical use, is ludicrous. Ailing patients deserve compassion, not prosecution, especially when they live in states that have legalized medical marijuana.”

In speech in Cuba, Obama urges change

President Barack Obama challenged Cuba’s Communist government with an impassioned call for democratic and economic change on March 22, addressing the Cuban people directly in a historic speech broadcast throughout the island.

Taking the stage at Havana’s Grand Theater with Cuban President Raul Castro in attendance, Obama used the crowning moment of his visit to extend a “hand of friendship.” He came, he said, to “bury the last remnant” of the Cold War in the Americas.

But Obama also pressed hard for economic and political reforms and greater openness, speaking in a one-party state where little dissent is tolerated.

People take pictures of President Barack Obama as he attends a meeting with entrepreneurs as part of his three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
People take pictures of President Barack Obama as he attends a meeting with entrepreneurs as part of his three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

His speech was the high point of a trip made possible by his agreement with Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, and work to normalize relations. Nonetheless, Obama minced no words in his calls for change.

“I believe citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear,” Obama told the audience. “Voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

“Not everybody agrees with me on this, not everybody agrees with the American people on this but I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they’re the rights of the American people, the Cuban people and people around the world,” Obama said.

While he urged an end to the longstanding U.S. economic embargo on the island, Obama added that “even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”

The scene of the leader of the United States, the superpower to the north once routinely reviled by the Cuban government, standing on Cuban soil urging such changes would have been unthinkable before the two countries began their rapprochement.

For years, Cuban leaders told American presidents to mind their own business. Indeed, Castro has been careful to state since the detente that it does not mean Cuba plans to change its political system, and that while his government is open to discuss any issue, it has to be with mutual respect.

Tuesday’s audience of more than a 1,000 people was made up of invited guests of the U.S. and Cuban governments. They included officials and business people of both countries, visiting U.S. lawmakers and members of Cuba’s cultural elite.

Obama drew sustained applause when he reiterated his call for the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, which he called “an outdated burden on the Cuban people.”

But the response was more muted to his appeal for greater political liberties, including freedom of expression and religion. Obama followed up those comments afterwards with a private meeting with dissidents.

Obama received a smattering of applause, however, when he called for economic reform to help attract more investment from U.S. companies, many of which have remained wary.

At the same time, Obama sought to balance his critique with recognition of America’s flaws and of Cuba’s achievements in areas such as healthcare and education.

Obama, who abandoned a longtime U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba, wants to make his shift irreversible by the time he leaves office in January and secure it as a piece of his foreign policy legacy.

But major obstacles remain to full normalization of ties, most notably the continuing U.S. embargo and differences over human rights. The Republican-controlled Congress has so far rejected the Democratic president’s call for a lifting of the embargo, although Obama has used his executive powers to ease some trade and travel restrictions on the island.

The president’s critics at home have called his visit a premature reward to the Castro government. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said on Tuesday the trip legitimizes what he called Castro’s “tyrannical dictatorship.”

Speech carried live in Cuba

With his words carried live by Cuba’s state-run media, Obama sought to persuade ordinary Cubans that his new policy, including easing of trade and travel restrictions, was focused primarily on helping them to improve their lives.

Standing at a lectern flanked by U.S. and Cuban flags, Obama laid out a hopeful vision of future U.S.-Cuban relations and told Cubans “it’s up to you” to take steps to change the country.

Some Cubans who listened to Obama’s speech broadcast to their homes and cafes took Obama’s criticism of the Cuban system in stride and were also impressed by his frank admission of America’s own failings.

“He has been very honest in his statements,” said Santiago Rodriguez, 78, in his home in central Havana. “It is not only the blockade (embargo) that has overwhelmed (us) for years. This was a message full of suggestions and positive criticism for the future of Cuba.”

Castro, an army general who took over as president from his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, in 2008, was at the theater to greet Obama on arrival and sat in the audience for the speech. At the end, the Cuban leader lightly applauded from the balcony, then waved to the crowd.

At a news conference on Monday after they met for talks, Obama and Castro aired some of the old grievances between their countries, even as they sought to advance the diplomatic thaw.

Obama’s administration is seeking to bridge the ideological divide by galvanizing the support of the Cuban public to help him pressure their government for reforms to the one-party system and state-run economy that so far have been slow to come. But it runs the risk of being accused of meddling by Havana.

After the speech, Obama met privately with about a dozen Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Embassy. He noted that some of them had been detained and commended them for their courage. Among the participants was Berta Soler, leader of Ladies in White, a protest group.

Obama’s much-anticipated address marked the first time a sitting U.S. president’s speech was broadcast to the Cuban people while on Cuban soil – though speeches by visiting popes have been carried live by state media.

Jimmy Carter, traveling to Cuba in 2002 as the first former U.S. president to visit since the revolution, called for political freedoms in a speech broadcast on live television.

Settlement drives reform at women’s prison

Wisconsin has satisfied the terms of a settlement requiring reforms in medical and mental health care at the state’s largest women’s prison, clearing the way to an end to a longstanding class-action lawsuit.

Flynn v. Walker was filed in 2006 on behalf of women prisoners at Taycheedah Correctional Institution, according to the ACLU of Wisconsin.

The lawsuit alleged the prison system put the lives of women prisoners at risk by providing women with grossly deficient mental health treatment — far inferior to that provided to men in Wisconsin prisons.

Also alleged was that the prison system failed to provide reasonable accommodations to allow prisoners with disabilities to access basic prison services.

“After years of needless suffering due to inadequate health care, Taycheedah has the staff, services and facilities necessary to address prisoners’ medical and mental health needs, fulfilling its constitutional obligation to the women incarcerated there,” said Gabriel B. Eber, senior staff counsel with the ACLU National Prison Project.

Eber said the state has come into compliance, and the ACLU hopes “the reforms won under the settlement agreement will continue once the litigation is dismissed.”

Larry Dupuis, legal director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said, “It was a long and sometimes contentious process, but Taycheedah has made good on its promises to deliver decent care to the women living at the institution. Of course, the impetus for the improvements at the prison was the litigation. But the medical leadership team has demonstrated a commitment to improving the quality of care that we expect them to maintain in the future.”

Wisconsin had sought to have the federal case dismissed, a motion denied by U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa in 2009. Randa entered a preliminary injunction, ordering changes to how the prison administered medications to prisoners.

In 2010, a settlement required Wisconsin officials to implement significant structural improvements aimed at providing constitutionally adequate levels of care for all Taycheedah prisoners and providing female prisoners with the same level of mental health care as male prisoners. The settlement also required equal access to programs and services for prisoners with disabilities.

The agreement required the prison’s medical program meet “performance standards,” which would be verified by an independent expert.

The ACLU said an expert, after 11 visits to the prison over five years, certified that Taycheedah had met the targets.

— Lisa Neff

Congressional conservatives threaten criminal justice reform

A handful of Senate Republicans have dealt a severe blow to prospects for overhauling the criminal justice system in Congress this year, with one lawmaker calling the bipartisan legislation championed by President Barack Obama and some prominent conservatives “a massive social experiment in criminal leniency.” 

The opposition from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and others will make it difficult for proponents to push the bill as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., assesses GOP support. Backed by the White House and a coalition of conservatives and liberals, supporters had hoped it would be a rare legislative accomplishment in a fiercely partisan election year and a final piece of Obama’s legacy.

At an event for congressional staff, Cotton and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., joined a group of federal prosecutors and argued against the bill, which would allow judges to reduce prison time for some drug offenders. The two senators — along with Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and David Perdue, R-Ga. — also issued statements of opposition.

Cotton later stood on the Senate floor, warning his colleagues that they would be held accountable if criminals were released and committed more crimes.

“If supporters of this bill and President Obama are wrong, if this grand experiment in criminal leniency goes awry, how many lives will be ruined?” Cotton asked. “How many dead? How much of the anti-crime progress of the last generation will be wiped away for the next?”

The bipartisan legislation, passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in November, would give judges discretion to give lesser sentences than federal mandatory minimums, eliminating mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders. It also would create programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society. The idea is to make the sentencing system fairer, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs.

Disparate voices — from Obama and the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Industries — have said the system is broken and have backed the Senate bill.

In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

Supporters of the bill are considering some changes to win over opponents, even though they sharply dispute the charge that the legislation would let violent criminals out of prison. Under the Senate bill, each case would be reviewed by a judge before the prison sentence was reduced.

Possible changes include revising or eliminating parts of the bill that would allow judges to consider reduced mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders or criminals who had possessed a firearm.

“How those changes will look is still being determined, but we’re moving ahead to get a bill ready to be considered on the Senate floor,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement early this week with Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, another supporter.

Cotton said he has been talking to staff as they look at changes, but still believes the legislation is based on a “false premise” that those who would be released are low-level, nonviolent offenders. Cotton and others have been more supportive of the prison reform piece of the bill that helps prisoners re-enter society.

The Arkansas senator is talking to Senate colleagues individually as advocates rally McConnell to move the bill this year. Cotton’s lobbying pits him against Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. Cornyn has been pressing his colleagues to support it, saying that opposition from Cotton and other conservatives like Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who has similar concerns, is misplaced.

As conservative opposition has grown, Cornyn and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have said the legislation doesn’t have to move this year. Unlike McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said the legislation is a priority, but hasn’t committed to a timeline.

The House Judiciary Committee has approved several separate criminal justice bills, with the eventual goal of moving them separately or together on the House floor. 

Justice Department announces Milwaukee Police Dept. review

The U.S. Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services this week announced the start of the “collaborative reform initiative” with the Milwaukee Police Department.

“The COPS Office will conduct a thorough, independent and objective assessment of the Milwaukee Police Department’s policies, practices and accountability systems,” said COPS office director Ronald Davis in a news release. “The findings and recommendations that come from such an assessment will empower the community to hold the department accountable to the best standards of the law enforcement profession.” 

Following the assessment, the COPS Office will issue a public report detailing the findings, along with recommendations for improvement.

The COPS Office will assess implementation of recommendations over an 18-month period following the initial assessment.

The Justice Department said the program is an independent way to transform a law enforcement agency through an analysis of policies, practices, training, tactics and accountability methods.

The initiative is designed to provide technical assistance to agencies facing significant law enforcement-related issues.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said in a prepared statement,  “I am encouraged by Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn’s decision to request this investigation and I am hopeful that the recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Justice will help the Milwaukee Police Department better serve our community. Given the number of high profile incidences in my district, including the deaths of Dontre Hamilton and Derek Williams, change in our current system is long overdue. We must do everything we can to strengthen the relationship between the citizens of Milwaukee and those who have sworn to protect them.”

Moore added, “However, I remain deeply concerned about allegations of racial profiling and ‘stop and frisk’ style policies that I fear are deeply imbedded in our current policing strategy. While this Office of Community Oriented Policing Services review represents a promising step forward, it does not involve the type of in-depth legal investigation I have called for through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. In the past, I have advocated for a full ‘pattern and practice’ review of the Milwaukee Police Department to broker the change many of my constituents feel is needed.”

The COPS Office is providing a review and recommendations in Spokane, Washington; Philadelphia; St. Louis County; Salinas, California; Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Calexico, California, and has completed the process in Las Vegas. 

The COPS office is a federal agency responsible for advancing community policing nationwide.

After guns wound and kill, bills pile up for victims and society

It was 1:30 a.m. on the first day of summer in 2014 and Claudiare Motley had just dropped off a friend after coming into town for his Milwaukee Tech High School 25-year class reunion. He was parked around North 63rd Street and West Capitol Drive, writing an email on his phone, as two cars pulled up.

Motley, then 43, knew “something was going on” as one of the vehicles turned in front of him and stopped. He put his phone into his pocket, shifted his car into gear. A teenager jumped from the car and tapped Motley’s window with a gun.

He accelerated as 15-year-old Nathan King fired, shattering glass. Motley rammed the car in front of him out of the way. He sped off and looked in the rearview mirror to see if they were chasing him.

“I just saw blood gushing out of my jaw,” Motley said.

After more than a year and six surgeries to repair his injuries, Motley estimates his out-of-pocket costs to be at least $80,000, and he expects more medical expenses as he continues to recover.

His efforts to get state victim’s compensation for his medical bills not covered by insurance have been unsuccessful so far. Motley’s credit has taken a hit, and he estimates lost earnings because of time he could not work in his family’s international law firm to be between $40,000 and $60,000.

Wisconsin taxpayers and health care providers also pay a high price for gun violence. In April, Mother Jones magazine pegged the cost of gun violence to Wisconsinites in 2012 at $2.9 billion in direct and indirect costs, or $508 for every person in the state.

Those figures include the financial and psychological tolls taken when a bullet forever alters the lives of victims and shooters alike. There are lost wages, stunted futures, shattered plans, life-changing trauma.

Firearms are a big factor in crime statewide. In 2014, guns were involved in 75 percent of murders, 56 percent of armed robberies, 27 percent of aggravated assaults and 3 percent of forcible rapes, according to the state Department of Justice.

Taxpayers pay all of the costs for police, prosecutors and incarceration — and sometimes to defend the accused — in gun crimes. And 79 percent of health care costs in Wisconsin associated with firearm-related injuries are paid by the public, according to a 2014 report using 2010 data by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

When he is released from prison, King — who is now paralyzed from the waist down because of a separate shooting days after he shot Motley — will probably face limited employment opportunities. Motley said he does not expect to see much of the $29,339 in court-ordered restitution.

State taxpayers paid about $1,500 for the 50 hours spent by Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Joy Hammond to prosecute King during the case that ended in September. They paid $1,537 for King’s attorney, Ann T. Bowe.

Residents of Wisconsin will spend about $405,000 to keep King in prison during his 12-and-a-half-year sentence for the Motley shooting and a later armed robbery in which King himself was shot. After he is released, King will be on extended supervision for seven and a half years at a cost to taxpayers of at least $21,000 in today’s dollars.

The tally for the Motley shooting — at least half a million dollars — is the cost of just one shooting in a city that this year has seen 691 people shot, including 131 killed, by firearms as of Nov. 15. That was a 77 percent increase in gun homicides from November 2014 and an 11 percent increase in nonfatal shootings.

Entire communities pay price

In addition to victims, entire communities face costs, including reduced property values in high-crime areas and increased costs to keep the public safe.

“It’s not just a problem for the individuals who are unlucky enough to get shot,” said Philip Cook, professor of public policy, economics and sociology at Duke University. “It’s a problem for whole communities. It’s a drag on economic development, it’s a drag on quality of life in a variety of ways.”

Violence was one of the things that prompted Motley to move out of his hometown of Milwaukee about eight years ago. He and his wife, Kimberley, and three children moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in part to escape what he calls a “cultural acceptance of violence” and a “proliferation of guns and illegal drugs.”

“You always hear the bad things that could happen, but you never really think … that you actually encounter something like that,” he said.

A report from the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy organization, suggests that a reduction in violent crime — including homicides, rapes and assaults — could have large impacts on urban areas. The report, which analyzed 2010 crime levels in Milwaukee and seven other cities, suggested a 10 percent reduction in homicides could boost residential real estate by $800 million in Milwaukee.

The report noted such a reduction could generate “large revenue gains” from property taxes, but it did not provide an estimate. Cutting homicides by 25 percent, it projected, could add $2 billion in increased housing values.

Experts say because the cost for each shooting is so high — often in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars — anything that could reduce gun violence would likely be worth the investment.

“Almost any reasonable policy that reduces crime will pay for itself,” said David Weimer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of political economy and expert in cost-benefit analysis.

But not everyone agrees on the best way to curb gun violence. Some have called for expanding background checks and for banning certain types of assault weapons.

Jeff Nass, executive director of Wisconsin Firearm Owners, Ranges, Clubs and Educators Inc., disagrees. He said any cost-benefit analysis should include the positive value that guns have when used for self-defense.

Nass, whose organization is affiliated with the National Rifle Association, argued that violence and gun issues are separate. He called for more prosecution of illegal gun possession and gun crimes.

“Bad violence is bad violence. Whether it’s done with a knife, a gun, whatever, it’s the person,” Nass said. “The people that we know are violent — that we know are in the criminal element — need to be held accountable.”

Gun violence drives up medical costs

The medical costs of shootings are often borne by taxpayers. Those costs usually begin with a trip to the hospital from the scene of the shooting.

Last year, paramedics from the Milwaukee Fire Department provided services to 297 shooting victims. The average cost was $1,300 per patient, or roughly $386,100.

Statewide, there were 349 hospitalizations and 742 emergency department visits because of firearm-related injuries in 2014, according to Department of Health Services data.

About half of emergency visits and 60 percent of hospitalizations are covered by Medicaid or Medicare, which are public insurance programs. The total amount public insurance programs paid for gun-related injuries in 2014 was about $6 million after negotiations between health care providers and the state and physician fees are factored in.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association, which provided information to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism used to reach this estimate, cautioned that it is “very rough.”

Dr. Stephen Hargarten, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said firearm injuries are “very, very expensive” to the public. Unlike knives and other methods of assault, firearms are more deadly and can leave significant long-term disabilities, he said.

“It’s costly to all of us because a significant portion of the people who are injured with bullets are those who are on Medicaid, Medicare or self pay,” said Hargarten, director of the college’s Injury Research Center.

Ted Miller, senior research scientist at the nonprofit Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said there may be additional costs for mental health care for those impacted by violence. Miller is is an expert in the costs of gun violence and other injuries at the institute, which uses research to recommend ways to improve public safety and health. For every type of homicide, he said, somewhere between 1.5 and 2.4 family members and loved ones of the victims seek mental health care.

Often, those costs, which vary from person to person, also are covered through public insurance programs, said Dr. Marlene Melzer-Lange, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and program director of Project Ujima at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Project Ujima provides mental health services to both adults and child victims of violent crime.

A small percentage of shootings leave victims paralyzed or gravely injured. That can lead to being placed on the state’s long-term care programs, which cost taxpayers roughly $3,100 a month for nursing home care or $530 a month for in-home care.

Legal, law enforcement costs high

Another cost is police response. That can vary significantly, from sending two officers to a report of shots fired to shutting down several blocks as officers canvass an area looking for evidence in a homicide. The time it takes to conduct an investigation depends on the cooperation of victims and witnesses and other factors.

“It’s different for every shooting,” said Milwaukee Police Department Sgt. Tim Gauerke. “Every one of them is based on the circumstances on hand.”

In 2014, the department dispatched units to 6,622 reported calls of shots fired — an average of 18 calls a day. Those calls may have overlapped with the 3,632 incidents of gunshots detected by the department’s ShotSpotter detection system, which allows police to pinpoint locations where a firearm has been discharged in an area of 11 square miles in the city.

That system expanded last year with a one-time funding of $350,000 split by the state and Milwaukee, and now costs the city more than $320,000 a year.

Wisconsin’s largest city has the most homicides and nonfatal shootings in the state. According to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, there were 75 firearm homicides and 583 nonfatal shooting victims in the city in 2014. The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted more than 1,100 cases involving a firearm last year.

To support efforts this year, the state, the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County formed the Milwaukee Gun Violence Reduction Initiative. The Legislature’s budget-writing committee unanimously backed $366,800 for the state to hire two assistant attorneys general to work as special prosecutors for gun cases in Milwaukee. Democratic and Republican lawmakers called the program a “Band-Aid” solution.

On the other side of firearm-related cases, the State Public Defender’s Office provides legal representation to defendants who cannot afford an attorney.

Since 2012, the office has appointed private attorneys to represent defendants in 832 armed robbery cases, paying each an average of $1,415. (Armed robbery can include any type of weapon, including a gun.) That amounts to $1.2 million and does not include the cost of paying public defender staff who represented other armed robbery suspects.

After they are convicted, inmates cost Wisconsin taxpayers an average of $32,800 a year. The average cost to supervise an offender after release is about $2,800 annually.

Police caught King, the teenager who shot Motley, shortly after the June 21, 2014, after he committed another crime. In that incident, King attempted to steal a woman’s car. She pulled out a gun and shot him, leaving King paralyzed from the waist down.

Motley fought to ensure King was tried as an adult because he felt a sentence in the juvenile system would have been too light.

“I just felt that was not enough to teach a lesson to a person who was really violent,” he said.

Gun violence costs wide-ranging

It is not just victims and perpetrators who pay a high price. There are other costs — some of them hard to quantify.

“We don’t know some of the other less easily defined costs of the fact that people in rural areas won’t come to Milwaukee because they’re scared,” said Hargarten of the Medical College of Wisconsin. “There’s an impact on tourism. There’s an impact maybe on businesses trying to locate somewhere else because the perception is that Milwaukee is not very safe.”

Miller said another understudied cost is the impact of adverse childhood experiences — serious traumas, such as witnessing or being a victim of gun violence. Studies show those experiences can harm brain development and may increase future health problems, including heart disease, depression and drug abuse.

“I think a lot of us for a long time have said violence is a public health problem, and a lot of people didn’t really believe it,” said Melzer-Lange of Project Ujima. “Your health either as a witness or as a direct victim is going to be affected downstream.”

Schools also pay for gun violence. According to a 2013 article in the trade magazine Campus Safety, 88 percent of school districts nationwide made or planned to make security enhancements after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in 2012.

There is also the “value of a statistical life.” Economists calculate that number by summing up what people are willing to pay for a small reduction in the probability of death. For example, if each person living in a community of 100,000 would pay $100 to reduce the number of deaths by one each year, the value of life would be $10 million.

The U.S. Department of Transportation puts the value at $9.4 million. This value is used nationwide by the department to analyze whether the cost of a certain potentially life-saving regulation or transportation improvement is worthwhile.

Miller puts the statistical value for one person injured by gun violence at $6.2 million. He said that “accounts for the pain, suffering and the lost quality of life for victims and their families.”

Victims can get some of their costs covered. Wisconsin’s Crime Victim Compensation Program caps the amount victims and their families can receive at $40,000 and only for out-of-pocket expenses. Qualifying families can also receive up to $1,000 to clean up a crime scene and $2,000 for a funeral. In all, $4.1 million was awarded in 2013-14 for 2,498 claims. The average claim paid was $3,205.

What can be done to curb violence?

Reducing gun violence requires a multi-faceted approach, experts say, with policy initiatives at the federal, state and local levels.

“If we can make those cities safer for gun violence, then they can develop and become places that thrive economically where businesses are investing in them, where employment becomes generally available,” said Cook of Duke.

Wisconsin lawmakers have offered some solutions. Gov. Scott Walker recently signed into law a bill that establishes mandatory minimum sentences for felons who commit certain violent crimes while illegally possessing a firearm.

State Democrats want to expand background checks for firearm purchases and ban semiautomatic weapons. A bill with bipartisan support would prevent those who commit multiple or violent misdemeanors from purchasing a firearm for 10 years, but those bills have not moved far in the Legislature.

During a Nov. 4 discussion before voting to pay for additional prosecutors for Milwaukee gun crimes, Democrats called for more action.

“Until we get to the bottom of addressing trauma and giving people hope by giving people opportunity through jobs, nothing’s going to change,” said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.

Twenty-four Democratic U.S. senators and 114 House members are urging President Barack Obama to use his executive powers to require universal background checks nationally.

State Republican lawmakers during the committee discussion saw different answers to the gun violence problem.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said the problem needs to be addressed on multiple fronts. The state already has “a lot of gun laws,” and he said some of the issues may not be solvable through public policy.

“What Milwaukee needs and what kids need in Milwaukee is not more district attorneys,” Kooyenga said. “We need more fathers, and the other part of it is we need more schools.”

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, called for more police officers and getting “habitual criminals” off the streets.

Motley agreed in part. He said repeat offenders, such as the 17-year-old who gave King the gun used to shoot him are part of “an epidemic that’s going on in the system.” Motley wants to find a way to prevent shootings and get guns off the streets, a focus that helps relieve some of the anger he feels at what happened to him.

“I’m not going to lay down. That’s not who I am,” Motley said. “And I’m just going to keep fighting.”

Ashley Luthern of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Emily Forman of 371 Productions and Kate Golden of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This report was produced in collaboration with Precious Lives, a two-year project investigating the problem of gun violence among young people, its causes and potential solutions in the Milwaukee area and statewide. Other partners in the project are 371 Productions, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Public Radio 89.7 WUWM and The Voice 860 AM WNOV.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s coverage is supported by The Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit Center (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

White House calls Paul Ryan’s remarks on immigration ‘preposterous’

The White House accused new House Speaker Paul Ryan on Nov. 2 of “pandering to the extreme right wing” of his party on immigration.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Ryan’s recent comments on immigration reform are “preposterous” and disappointing.

The Wisconsin Republican said on Nov. 1 that he’s ruled out passing comprehensive immigration legislation while President Barack Obama is in office. He said Obama cannot be trusted on the issue because he went around Congress to take executive actions shielding from deportation millions of people living in the country illegally.

Earnest called the remark “ironic.” He said it’s Ryan who supported an immigration deal, then failed to push for it to come up for a vote in the House.

The White House criticism comes as Ryan is maneuvering carefully on the issue of immigration, long a priority for him. With most House conservatives wary of anything that could constitute “amnesty” for the 11.5 million immigrants living here illegally, Ryan has offered repeated assurances, before and after becoming speaker last week, that he will not pursue comprehensive immigration legislation as long as Obama is president. 

It’s a new stance for Ryan, who as recently as last year was working behind the scenes in the House to promote immigration legislation following Senate passage of a comprehensive bill, including a path to citizenship for those here illegally. 

The secretive House efforts largely collapsed in the aftermath of former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s upset loss in a GOP primary in June of 2014, attributed to Cantor’s supposed support for immigration legislation. 

Ryan even embraced eventual citizenship for those here without legal documents, something that’s anathema to many conservatives. In a 2013 appearance before the City Club of Chicago alongside the leading pro-immigrant activist in the House, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Ryan said: “We do not want to have a society where we have different classes of people who cannot reach their American dream by being a full citizen. That is a very important part of immigration reform.”

Asked on Nov. 1 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about his support for a “path to citizenship,” Ryan emphasized something different, saying: “Well, legal status is what I was talking about.”

Legal status versus citizenship is an important distinction, partly because only citizenship confers the right to vote. His office said Ryan supports “earned legal status,” noting that this could eventually lead to citizenship through existing channels.

Ryan has been under pressure from conservative lawmakers demanding assurances from him on the issue, even as Gutierrez and other activists have criticized him for offering such promises. 

Earnest said Ryan’s remarks don’t bode well for a “new era of Republican leadership.”