In a time of global COVID-19 pandemic, and when – two decades into the 21st century – structural and institutional racism is very much a part of American society, we are charged with the overdue work of making our criminal justice system equitable, compassionate, and fair.

Students of crime and punishment know the pendulum of public policy swings between approaches largely characterized by either punishment or support in rebuilding lives. While, for decades, Dane County has stood firmly on the side of restoring individuals involved in the criminal justice system to meaningful roles in the community, the sad and reprehensible truth is that people of color and people experiencing mental health challenges are both disproportionately and often unnecessarily arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to spend time in jail. This must change.

At the end of June, just three weeks ago, I joined Representative Shelia Stubbs, who also serves on the Dane County Board, in proposing 14 action steps to improve our criminal justice system. Borne of a decade of community-involved committee and task force work and evidence-based analysis, this package of initiatives provides us with a roadmap to move forward. I know my colleagues on the County Board are anxious to support change and I intend to introduce a resolution endorsing the 14 point proposal.

There are many actors in the criminal justice system and change must be built on city, county, and state collaboration. For example, Dane County runs the 911 system, but local law enforcement and fire departments are dispatched to emergencies. The Dane County Sheriff runs the jail, but people are arrested by local law enforcement, charged by the District Attorney, and sentenced by Circuit Court judges. The County Board, by fiat, cannot change the entire system. What we can and must do is work together to fix a broken system.

Over the past 10 years, the Criminal Justice Council (CJC), comprised of the County Executive, the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the Presiding Judge, the Clerk of Courts, and the County Board Chair, as well as local law enforcement, the Public Defender, Wisconsin Department of Corrections and other key stakeholders have built a foundation of collaboration resulting in ground-breaking initiatives like the Dane County Community Restorative Court. I look forward to presenting the 14 point proposal to the CJC at the end of the month, knowing that implementation of initiatives such as a weekend arraignment court cannot happen without us all working together.

During the same 10 years, Dane County has built strong relationships with national partners and local advocates. Nationally, counties that have moved effectively for criminal justice system change have partnered with local health care, the business community, and philanthropists, as well as communities most impacted. It is time to move from platitudes to purposeful solutions.

I invite the entire Dane County community to join us in the critical work of creating effective change.

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