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Report: Racial Disparities In Who Is Sent To Milwaukee's Diversion Programs

Marti Mikkelson
While Prosecutorial Performance Indicators' Melba Pearson says there are things that Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm's office is getting right, there's work to be done to remove racial disparities in who is sent to Milwaukee's diversion programs.

Diversion programs are an integral part of keeping people out of jail or prison. But like many things in Milwaukee’s criminal justice system, there’s a racial disparity in who is sent to diversion programs and who isn’t.

A recent report from the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators project looked at how diversion programs were used in four cities, including Milwaukee. It found that Black defendants in Milwaukee were the least likely to be placed in a diversion program.

Melba Pearson is the director of policy and programs for the Center for the Administration of Justice at Florida International University and one of the managers of the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators project. She explains the role diversion programs play.

There are many collateral consequences that come from bring involved in the criminal justice system — having a criminal history can make it hard to get a job, housing resources and student loans, she says. "So knowing this reality, diversion programs play a very critical role in the criminal justice system because it provides that second chance," Pearson explains. "So you end up with your charge — if you successfully complete the program, your charges end up being dismissed, which means you don't have that sitting on your record to prohibit you from being able to get jobs, get housing and move your life forward in a positive manner."

The "Race And Prosecutorial Diversion" report found that Milwaukee was consistent with the three other jurisdictions that the report looked at and found there were racial disparities in who got into diversion programs and who didn't.

Pearson explains, "So in Milwaukee in 2017, about 115 white felony defendants per 1,000 were diverted ... , but over time, that number reduced to 52. Then on the flip side, you did see a disparity with regards to less African American, or Black, felony defendants receiving diversion. ... The positive thing is over time that number is decreasing."

One way to make the system more equitable, Pearson says, is to examine the barriers that make it hard for someone to enroll in a diversion program, even if they might be eligible. For example, one barrier, she says, is cost.

"... If you work in fast food and the diversion program is $1,000, when you do the math, and figuring out how to pay your bills and take care of your family, etc., etc., there may not be any money for you to enter that program, even though you may be eligible and it gives a distinct benefit for you.," she says.

Pearson points to what Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is getting right. She says, "... What Milwaukee has been doing a really great job at is declining cases rather than diverting them."

Pearson adds, "So it is better to decline more cases upfront and only file your strongest, most solid cases and move forward from there — rather than rely on diversion."

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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