Close to a thousand people gathered on the steps of the state capitol today as part of a statewide church-based protest to call on legislators to boost funding for treatment alternatives to prison.
Rabbis, ministers, bishops and the leader of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee took turns at the podium; they called for replacing what they deemed a counterproductive policy of incarcerating low-level nonviolent offenders with a policy of treatment and community supervision. Othman Atta of the Islamic Society says the policy change makes sense from both a political and religious stand point:
"As religious leaders, as political leaders, as members of society to help those who have stumbled — not to incarcerate, but to help them overcome their challenges. This is a much better and effective strategy for all."
In concrete terms, the campaign to cut the prison population from 22,000 to 11,000 is asking for a $75 million boost in funding for treatment and prison diversion programs, which currently receive about a million dollars a year. Bishop Jeff Barrow of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church says that shift will help slow the revolving door into and out of prison.
"If they need treatment, it hasn't been received in prison. They sometimes have child support payments that continue without a job. They may have an officer in the community that doesn't like them and there's a good chance they're going to have a broken tail light infraction. That starts the process all over. We need to do something different than what we are doing."
Prison reformers in the state say shifting priorities to treatment will help reduce the one billion dollars a year the state now spends on prisons.