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Community seeks alternative justice

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  • The Restorative Justice Initiative Conference was held at Marquette Tuesday.
  • Local law enforcement, the mayor, community leaders and law professors talked on the subject of using restorative justice as an alternative to more formal punishment systems.
  • They said by facing the community after having committed a crime, the offender will see the effect his or her action has.

The mayor, law enforcement officials, community leaders and law professors descended on Marquette Tuesday for the fifth annual Restorative Justice Initiative Conference.

The event was hosted by the Marquette Law School.

Restorative justice is criminal justice taken from the perspective of the effects crime has on a community. It involves making a person who commits a crime face his or her victim and others in the community affected by it.

By facing the real, human effects of a crime, the hope is that the offender realizes how much of an effect he or she has by committing the crime. Various speakers took turns addressing the crowd with their take on restorative justice as an effective alternative to traditional measures of correction.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett spoke first. He thanked the crowd for coming, noting how excited he was that so many people were concerned with keeping Milwaukee safe.

He said restorative justice is integral to Milwaukee's safety because, for the most part, the people who commit crimes in Milwaukee are Milwaukee residents.

Barrett recalled a visit he made to the prison in Racine. He spoke briefly to the inmates and implored them, upon their release, to come up to him and tell him how they're doing. Later in the year, Barrett said he was at a fast food restaurant and one of the workers came up to him and said he was there when Barrett visited.

"Are you gonna make it?" Barrett asked.

"I'm gonna make it," the man replied.

Barrett stressed that these prisoners are still members of the Milwaukee community.

"(We) recognized that the people who end up in prison are part of our community," Barrett said. "We have to be more engaged with (their return). When they get out of prison, they're released into Milwaukee."

U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic touched on the importance of every level of the law enforcement team, especially the first responders.

"They all play a part in law enforcement strategy," Biskupic said. "We can't ignore the role of police officers."

He also said it's a problem that affects the entire region — not just the city or county — so there has to be a concentrated effort by various regional organizations.

Janine Geske, a former judge and current Marquette law professor, said it's fitting that Marquette would host such a conference since "service to the community is such an important part of Marquette's mission."

The keynote speaker was David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Kennedy said communities have "profound" and "uncompromised" power.

He pointed out that the formal social control was ineffective and damaging, and offered his proposal — restorative justice.

"(Formal control) doesn't work as well as we'd like," Kennedy said. "It overutilizes punishment, and stigmatizes and excludes offenders."

He said the terms "War on Drugs" and "War on Crime" are inappropriate because they ostracize members of the community.

"One doesn't declare war on oneself," Kennedy said.

He proposed restorative justice as an alternative. Shame, guilt, family and friends are more powerful than formal controls like the police, he said.

But a glaring problem remains within the existing restorative justice framework, Kennedy said.

"Restorative justice has ended up in a weird, strange place," he said. "In practice, it ends up involving low-level incident, usually involving juveniles."

These are extremely powerful ideas, but with very limited practical application, Kennedy said. So he proposed a "focused deterrence framework."

Under this proposal, there will be strategic intervention aimed at solving specific problems like overt drug markets and gang violence.

The community's moral voice offers a clear, direct community stand, he said. The community members need to make offenders own the pain they're inflicting. They get people the offenders respect, such as parents and ex-gang members, and challenge the accepted street code.

"I don't know many who respect the police," he said. "I don't know many who don't respect their mothers."

Kennedy said that through the strategic intervention policy, offenders will learn to behave correctly not for fear of punishment, but because they see the effects their actions have.

"We don't tell them that what they're doing is wrong," he said. "Let's tell the truth. That's what really matters."

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