Striking the root: Innovative program aims to fight crime while satisfying both sides of the political spectrum

Throughout the decades, anti-crime efforts have often swung wildly between carrot and stick approaches – or what people of differing political stripes might characterize as either squishy liberal coddling or hard-nosed, hang-‘em-high discipline.

A new approach being tested by the city of Madison perhaps bridges the gap between these extremes. More importantly, however, it’s an approach that’s been shown to succeed in an arena where solutions have often been in short supply.

Based on a successful High Point, N.C., initiative, Madison’s Community Against Violence program recently kicked off with an “intervention meeting” involving 10 of the city’s most troublesome repeat offenders. Based on the work of David Kennedy of John Jay College, the “focused-deterrence” program uses money that would otherwise be spent on incarceration and aims to dramatically reduce the recidivism rate, keeping in mind that a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by a small percentage of offenders.

“The key behind focused deterrence is to identify the offenders, get to know them, strip their anonymity, and say to them, ‘We recognize that you’re having a disproportionate impact on our community and your behavior has to stop, and we’re going to hold you accountable, but at the same time we’re going to offer you resources through the community that might improve your quality of life with the same shared goal to change your behavior,” said Lt. Tom Woodmansee, who is leading the initiative for the Madison Police Department.

“Kennedy’s research shows that if you express to a rational person, even if they’re a repeat criminal who is involved with criminal activity throughout their life, and give them follow-through on consequences and at the same time offer them an opportunity to improve their life that they’ll choose the latter.” – Lt. Tom Woodmansee, Madison Police Department

According to Woodmansee, after High Point implemented its program, the city reduced its rate of violent crime by 46% during a period when its population grew by 30%. He said the recidivism rate among those targeted by the program also went down dramatically. This, he said, was a result of the options offenders were given.

“Kennedy’s research shows that if you express to a rational person, even if they’re a repeat criminal who is involved with criminal activity throughout their life, and give them follow-through on consequences and at the same time offer them an opportunity to improve their life that they’ll choose the latter.”

While resources are made available to the offenders in the program, those individuals are also highly scrutinized, said Woodmansee. The detectives assigned to the focused-deterrence unit follow up with those in the program individually and work with probation, parole, and community partners in letting these individuals know that support is available but that they are also being watched and held accountable.

It’s this full-court press from both the program’s community partners and law enforcement that promises to make it successful – and make it appeal to folks on both sides of the political aisle.

“The offenders are mandated to come to this meeting, and then the group of community representatives from a wide variety of resource providers facilitated by The United Way and Madison Urban Ministry address the offenders in person and tell them they’re here to offer assistance but they’re here to also hold them accountable, that their prior behavior must stop now,” said Woodmansee. “They go through each individual resource that they will provide, and they sit down, and then in walks law enforcement and a prosecutor panel, which consists of [Madison Police] Chief [Noble] Wray, United States Attorney John Vaudreuil, District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, FBI, DEA, IRS, ATF, [Dane County] Sheriff [David] Mahoney – the combination of state and federal agencies to show the magnitude behind this effort. And the goal again is to say we are all on the same page here, we support you getting the help and the resources, but we’re going to make sure that you don’t slip through the cracks as you probably have before.

“So the program truly has elements of whatever way you want to look at the criminal justice system, whether you look at it from a conservative or liberal standpoint. … I’ve heard this described by a federal judge actually as both sides of the spectrum. You can’t refute the message here being sent. You want your behavior to change, we can help you take advantage of your opportunities, but at the same time, if you reoffend and have more victims in our community, we’re going to hold you accountable.”

Reaching out

Linda Ketcham is the director of Madison Urban Ministry (MUM), which is helping to provide resources for the individuals in the focused-deterrence program. Through its Journey Home Program, which is a pilot initiative of The United Way, the ministry provides a network of services to assist individuals who have spent time in prison. The program provides referral and linkage to appropriate community services, including employability and support services, and establishes “ex-offender-friendly” links to employers and employment opportunities.

The group also runs the Phoenix Initiative, a support group for formerly incarcerated men and women that’s facilitated by people who have been involved with the criminal justice system themselves. That program focuses on preparing individuals for and finding housing, employment, support, and treatment. MUM also works with halfway houses, shelters, and substance abuse treatment providers.

Ketcham says that MUM already works closely with some Madison-area employers, as well as with local landlords. She says that as part of the community, companies that give ex-offenders a new lease on life end up getting a good return on their investment.

“Here are these 10 guys, they’re already in our community, and we can fail to provide housing and employment and have them go back to prison at a cost of over $30,000 a year, or they can work with agencies like ours, with many of the other providers out in the community, to really open some doors for those individuals who are trying to rebuild their lives and are really working with programs,” said Ketcham. “Can we absolutely guarantee that someone won’t make a mistake? No. But we aren’t going to refer someone to you for employment who we don’t think is ready to work, and we’re going to be there for you as a resource and somebody to assist you and the individual to really make that employment position work.”

Of course, Ketcham acknowledges that there’s a risk in hiring an ex-offender, but says there can also be an upside.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, hiring people, and there’s always a risk,” said Ketcham. “There’s never a guarantee that the person you hire is, one, going to be a good employee or, two, not going to do something stupid. It just so happens that with our guys, there’s a paper trail. But a lot of them are really sincere. There are some really smart men and women out there who’ve been in the criminal justice system or coming out, some of these guys among them, who really are sharp. They’re smart, and they really do want to turn things around.”

But in the end, says Ketcham, the program is unlikely to work unless the community as a whole backs it.

“I think to make this model work – it is a good model, it’s a proven model – but to make it work, it really does require the community to engage, too. Both the nonprofits in terms of resources, but also the general public, the business community, the landlord community – so it really has to be a community response.”

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