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Keeping a community safe

August 31, 2011 | 07:31 AM
The calendar may say that we still have a month of summer to go, but for me, fall officially started when I took my daughter back to college. Some things haven't changed since my folks dropped me off at school three decades ago. Haggard parents and younger siblings still tote boxes of clothes, books and food up endless flights of stairs. Parking, carts and elevators remain in short supply at most colleges. Students still feel compelled to cram extra furniture into a room that already looks crowded with two standard-issue beds and desks. My daughter and her roommate are probably still trying to squeeze an old couch and two easy chairs into theirs.

One thing that has changed is the kind of electronics being carried in. Stereos and record albums, which were the time-wasters of my generation, have given way to gaming systems and iPods. With the possible exception of the sales floor at Best Buy, I have never seen as many giant, flat-screen TVs in one building. It's always a little sad to say goodbye after the summer but, for me, that sadness is tempered by the euphoria I feel when I get back to the car and realize that I don't have to live in the chaos and clutter of that dorm room for a year. After the hugs and a few tears, I gave my daughter the same advice that my dad would always give to me: "Remember what you're here for, kid." So far she has.

Being on campus made me think about higher education, in general. The institution, even in my lifetime, used to be held in much higher esteem. Historically, we would turn to professors to invent life-changing products and cure diseases. When "B" movie monsters like Godzilla or Mothra ran amok, one of the first persons called to the scene was a professor, who invariably knew the creature's weakness. We trusted the advice of professors because, in general, they were smart people who had spent most of their lives studying a particular issue. Higher education has taken a lot of hits in recent years. Some argue that professors don't teach enough classes or they are not to be believed because they have a political bias. Some of this criticism is undoubtedly true. I know I wouldn't feel real good about writing out the tuition check if my daughter were taking a class from that professor who compared 9/11 victims to Nazis. On the other hand, it is always dangerous to paint with too broad of a brush. A few suspect academicians have caused a segment of society to discount the scientific method, entirely. Convinced that all research is biased, these folks are more likely to support programs that they believe or hope will work, rather than trusting the results of research based on statistical evidence.

In the case of the criminal justice system, the conventional wisdom has been that locking up offenders is the best way to keep the public safe. An increasing body of research, however, is calling that conventional wisdom into question. While nearly everyone would agree that jail or prison is the best place for violent offenders and habitual criminals, incarceration may do more harm than good for other offenders. The loss of employment while serving a sentence, and the chance to socialize with (and learn from) more serious criminals, are two immediate drawbacks of jail. And then there is the cost. Nationally, corrections spending has expanded to become the second fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. Alternatives to incarceration include specialized courts that provide treatment to chemically dependent offenders while closely supervising them in the community. If jail alternatives sound like liberal notions to you, I would encourage you to learn more about the Right on Crime initiative. A growing number of conservatives are challenging governments to develop more effective and lower cost solutions to crime.

In Walworth County, a group of criminal justice stakeholders, known as the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC), is looking for innovative ways to keep communities safe while also keeping an eye on the bottom line for taxpayers. CJCC members include the county's judges, sheriff, district attorney, clerk of circuit court and county board chairperson, among others. I recently spent a day with our CJCC as members participated in training and planning with their counterparts from Racine and Kenosha counties. The group's highest priority in the upcoming months is to systematically gather and analyze data concerning crime and offenders in Walworth County. Obtaining this information is a critical first step in developing effective programs based on statistical evidence rather than on just a hunch.

One thing we did learn at the recent meeting is that not all CJCCs are the same. Some counties have organized theirs as a "workgroup" or informal meeting of officials rather than as a formally recognized committee. Operating in this manner, while perfectly legal, excludes the general public from attending the meetings. Meetings of Walworth County's CJCC, on the other hand, are open to the public. Those who would like to learn more about the criminal justice system in the county or even share ideas are welcome to attend. Meetings are generally held on the second Friday of the month. Consult the county's website, www.co.walworth.wi.us, for a complete agenda.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.

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Walworth County