Four local experts will form a panel at a forum at Beloit College to discuss Wisconsin's ever-increasing incarceration issue.
The panel discussion to be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Wilson Theatre, Mayer Hall, is titled “Incarceration Epidemic: Crisis in Wisconsin.”
The discussion will be moderated by David Liners, director of WISDOM, a statewide network of faith-based community organizations.
“It's a message that we're trying to get out wherever and however we can that there's something terribly wrong with our criminal justice system,” Liners said.
Participating on the panel will be Regina Dunkin, a member of the Rock County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Rock County Sheriff Robert Spoden, Beloit College associate professor of sociology Charles Westerberg, and Erick Williams, program manager for the Fatherhood Program.
“We've got four local folks from four different backgrounds and we want to hear their perspectives,” Liners said.
Since 1990, Wisconsin's prison population has more than tripled. The cost of corrections in the state has risen from under $200 million per year at that time to more than $1.3 billion in 2011.
“We're hoping to raise the alarm about Wisconsin's incarceration policies and their effects and get concerned citizens to call their lawmakers,” Beloit College spiritual life program director Bill Conover said.
Most panel participants agree that alternative methods for dealing with non-violent criminals is one of the keys in reducing the prison population in Wisconsin. Each offered a glimpse of the insight that they will be providing in full at the forum.
“I've always been a strong advocate of alternatives. It's been a focus of my administration,” Spoden said. “Prisons and jails should be for people who are dangerous.”
Spoden noted that drug offenses have seen a major increase in Rock County in recent years.
“These individuals become addicted to heroin and they begin engaging in criminal behaviors related to their addiction,” Spoden said. “(Jails) are becoming a safety net for individuals with drug of mental health issues and we don't have adequate treatment for them.”
Dunkin believes that non-violent drug-related offenses need to have their mandatory sentences reformed. Dunkin plans to talk about a need for programs like one at the Merrill Community Center where youth as young as 7-years-old learn about staying away from drugs and out of trouble.
“I think (the problems) start from the first time people get arrested, especially with African Americans. Once they get in the system, it's hard to get out,” Dunkin said. “If we can reach the children early, it can make a big difference. We need to work together as a community to strengthen families.”
Discussion at the panel will also surely reach socioeconomic factors in the incarceration rate, with Westerberg bringing historical context.
“My training and my bias is that I want to look at the system as a whole. I'll be looking at it less in regard to specific programs and more about on the national level compared with other industrialized nations,” Westerberg said.
All four panel participants plan to speak about the need for programs that will help inhibit repeat offenders.
Williams, being the program manager at the Fatherhood Program, experiences the difficulties of formerly incarcerated men every day.
The Fatherhood Program is a state-funded endeavor to provide former criminals with employment opportunities and the support needed to get back on their feet.
“We address the cognitive thinking process and the bad decisions that were made to help them understand why they were made. We give them employability skills,” Williams said. “We teach them how to fish, but don't give them a fish.”
The discussion is open to the public and free to attend. It will last approximately 90 minutes.
“We'll have questions for each of them having to do with their areas of expertise. Then we'll have a segment where they can respond to each other and we'll also have a segment for audience questions,” Liners said.