Monday, March 2, 2009

Milwaukee Community Justice Council: Reaching Its Full Potential?

There was much praise for Milwaukee’s year-old effort at criminal justice coordination at Marquette Law School's February 20th conference, “The Future of Community Justice in Wisconsin.” But, more than merely showering members of the Milwaukee Community Justice Council with acclaim, panelists also discussed ways the group can reach its full potential.

The intergovernmental council seeks to coordinate and improve area criminal justice efforts. The Milwaukee group’s executive committee includes the county executive, the mayor, the sheriff, the police chief, the district attorney, and is headed by the chief judge. Multiple sub-committees focus on areas such as juvenile justice and public health.

At one component of the Marquette conference, three panelists from Indiana shared lessons learned from their own community justice efforts, such as the advice to create “action plan” meetings and be willing to measure results. One panelist stressed that community involvement and relationships were key to the success of her group, such as using a university professor from outside government to mediate.

The panelists appeared to be empowered by their access to funding -- $25 million in the Indiana state budget for community justice council administration and related programming. When asked how they got judges to agree to the councils' changes, the response was “We were the ones with the checkbooks.” Funding was tied to evidence-based practices. In fact, the phrase “evidence-based practices” was mentioned repeatedly, underscoring its importance in community justice efforts.

One of the most useful pieces of information at the conference, research by Ben Kempien of the University of Wisconsin Law School, was distributed in print.* Kempien explored collaborative criminal justice efforts in seven Wisconsin counties: Barron, Dane, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Marathon, Portage, and Waukesha. He estimates there are at least 24 criminal justice councils in Wisconsin, some over 10 years old. His findings suggest that Milwaukee’s Community Justice Council may be missing opportunities to realize the greatest impact possible.

Some councils, like Portage County's, now enable the use of sophisticated data to evaluate outcomes and determine ways to more effectively deploy county resources. The Milwaukee council’s Data Analysis and Information Committee is exploring how to better integrate criminal justice data. All counties Kempien studied except for Barron conducted a thorough system assessment or “mapping” early in their group’s existence, which participants found highly instructive. This echoes the Milwaukee conference attendees who have been calling for a local master planning effort after a National Institute of Corrections report criticized Milwaukee for lacking a criminal justice master plan.

Such data analysis and widespread planning efforts are difficult given the Milwaukee council’s absence of dedicated staff and funding. When Kempien contrasted the community justice groups with dedicated staff to those without, he found striking differences in organization and access to system data, leading him to conclude, “There was little doubt that the full benefit of collaborative planning could not be achieved without dedicated resources and staff.”

At the Marquette conference, Community Justice Council members agreed that adding a dedicated staff person would be invaluable to the group. Finding the money for such staff is a different matter. Kempien says state-level support for such collaborative efforts is the appropriate “next step” to continue and expand progress, but given the state's budget difficulties, acquiring such funding would be challenging.

*Research forthcoming in Justice System Journal, Vol. 30, Is. 1.

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