Editorial Roundup: Wisconsin

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. June 11, 2024.

Editorial: Why appeals are so important

We don’t doubt that people have their own opinions about the ongoing tussle before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals regarding whether the teen charged with killing Lily Peters is tried as an adult. We do.

After the circuit court’s ruling against a reverse waiver we agreed, saying if this crime doesn’t warrant trial as an adult, what does? We stand by that. But we also understand why what’s happening now needs to play out.

There’s a balance in courts, ideally, between the concepts of punishment and rehabilitation. The latter is actually a fairly new idea. Colonial America focused punishments on shaming — we’ve all seen pictures of people in stocks — and corporal measures. The goal was to make committing a crime too painful, either psychologically or physically, for people to act on such impulses.

The shift toward the idea of rehabilitation came in concert with the industrial revolution. That wasn’t an accident. As the nation moved toward urban centers rather than rural life, more people came into conflict with one another. The prison population shot up. By the late 19th century, strong pressure was emerging for incarceration to also represent a shot at renewal and rehabilitation.

The system today maintains that focus, at least officially. There’s good reason for that, though. The vast majority of those who find themselves in jail or in prison will eventually be released back into public life. It is far better for society to have those people return better able to function in society than during the events that led to their incarceration, though whether that idea is met is certainly up for debate.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that juvenile cases have evolved alongside the rest of the system. Up until the mid-19th century there really wasn’t such a system. Juveniles were generally placed alongside adults in jails or prisons. The Salem Witch Trials offer a particularly striking example of this. Dorothy Good was arrested and jailed for seven or eight months, and she was just 4 years old.

The first court dedicated to handling juvenile cases in the United States only dates to 1899, when it was set up in Cook County, Ill. About 70 years later juvenile courts were commonplace, with the Supreme Court weighing in about additional protections for young people accused of crimes.

While we disagree with the defense contention that placing Peters’ accused killer in the juvenile system would not lessen the seriousness of the crime, it is essential that the argument be heard and processed within the norms of our justice system. It is never acceptable for the system to toss aside protections for those accused of a crime out of disgust with the act. A full and effective defense is a cardinal guarantee in our system, and that right must be respected.

That includes the right to challenge the system itself in certain circumstances. There’s a parallel here to one of the points often made about the right to free speech. If we as a society are not willing to allow speech that offends or makes people uncomfortable, are we really allowing freedom of speech as envisioned in the First Amendment. The crime with which this teen is charged is odious. It is, and should be, repugnant to people. Still, we must afford the rights due a defendant, and that means letting the challenges play out.

Would we like to see the process completed speedily? Of course. That’s also supposed to be part of the system. It’s important to recognize that legal shortcuts would, in the long run, extend the appeals and the pain of those involved.

What we’re watching now may not be a fun part of the judicial system, but that doesn’t mean it’s not essential.

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Wisconsin State Journal. June 9, 2024.

Editorial: Prison mess demands plan from the top

It’s hard to imagine the Waupun prison rehabilitating criminals if it can’t even provide the basic necessities of life.

Donald Maier, 62, serving 15 years for stalking, told a doctor at the prison in February he needed “water, water, water, all the water in the world,” according to a criminal complaint.

The doctor informed staff. Yet eight days later, Maier died in a cell, having asked for water multiple times over the previous two days while his water was restricted because he had flooded his room. Maier wasn’t fed or didn’t consume eight of 12 meals over four days, according to investigators, and was seen drinking from a toilet. Staff did not intervene multiple times when he was unresponsive on the floor.

Maier likely died of dehydration and malnutrition, according to a medical examiner, though his heart, kidney and mental health were likely contributing factors.

Another inmate died from a fentanyl overdose and stroke Oct. 29 at the prison, about 55 miles northeast of Madison. His body wasn’t found for at least 12 hours, according to Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt, and prison staff were falsely reporting hourly check-ins — a practice supervisors allegedly knew about.

Those are just a few of the disturbing details in criminal complaints filed last week against the prison’s warden, Randall Hepp, and eight other employees in connection with the two deaths. The warden “retired” the week before he was arrested and charged with misconduct in public office. Other staff are accused of misconduct or neglecting inmates.

The charges demand further investigation at the prison and hearings at the Capitol to ensure such disregard for human life doesn’t continue. Lawmakers also should insist on an independent and broader assessment of the prison system and training.

Many prisons are over capacity and understaffed. Forty-three percent of correctional staff and sergeant positions in Waupun were vacant last week. But that’s no excuse for failing to maintain basic care.

Gov. Tony Evers is demanding accountability at the Waupun Correctional Institution, which is welcome. He and the Legislature raised the starting pay of prison guards in the latest state budget to help attract more workers. About 14% of positions were vacant last week across all Department of Corrections adult facilities.

But this is about so much more. Wisconsin for decades has locked up twice as many people as neighboring Minnesota. Wisconsin, with 22,000 inmates, spends more per capita on prisons than all surrounding states, and more on prisons — $1.4 billion last year — than its university system.

The charges in Dodge County last week were just the latest reports of terrible conditions at the Waupun and Green Bay prisons, which are more than a century old. Lockdowns and lawsuits have marred the facilities for years, and the governor asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into contraband smuggling.

Calls to close the Waupun and Green Bay institutions deserve renewed analysis and consideration. Similar to Dane County, which recently approved a new jail, the state may need a modern facility to house its most violent offenders that’s more efficient for staff, services and security.

The governor may have inherited a troubled prison system. But his administration doesn’t seem to be improving things much if at all.

Taxpayers need a clear plan from the governor and Jared Hoy, his new Department of Corrections secretary, for a better prison system that’s humane and effective at rehabilitation. Most inmates will eventually get out. Helping them beat addictions, train for jobs and find housing before they’re released deserves higher priority.

What’s your plan, governor? Wisconsin needs to know how you’re going to fix this.

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