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Sean Wilson Shares His Vision For A New Form Of Justice

Sean Wilson in a light blue shirt and orange and blue bow tie
Sean Wilson
Sean Wilson is the manager for Smart Justice at the ACLU of Wisconsin where he uses his experience during incarceration to push for change in the justice system.

Sean Wilson was 17 years old when he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 17 years in prison here in Wisconsin.

On the day of his sentencing, as he watched his uncles carry his crying mother out of the courtroom, Wilson made a promise to himself, "These white folks are going to hate they gave me this much time to think."

At that time, Wilson didn't fully understand the depth of the role of race plays in the criminal justice system. But he soon would. "I found myself within the confines of the Department of Corrections, witnessing the inhumanity that was perpetrated against the folks in their care," Wilson explains.

From within the walls of Green Bay Correctional Institution, he began his journey of education, liberation and empowerment. He reflected, learned, healed, and became an advocate for justice while incarcerated.

Wilson says, "I got out of prison mentally, before I got out physically."

Wilson began the process of accepting responsibility for his actions and repairing the harm he created while he was incarcerated, and he took that work outside of prison when he was released. He is the campaign manager for Smart Justice at the ACLU of Wisconsin, where he uses his experience to push for new ideas on justice.

Wilson believes most of the people in our nation's jails suffer from some form of substance abuse, mental health issues, or trauma, and the current system is not built to address these challenges. "We're putting a bandaid on major social issues," he says.

Wilson would like to shift the focus of our system. "The current justice system that we as Americans are faced with now is a justice system that is punitive," he says. "Where I would love to see us go is one that is restorative."

Wilson's vision for a new form of justice is rooted in his experience and his understanding of our current system as an evolution of slavery. He follows in the philosophical footsteps of the people he sees as his abolitionist ancestors: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.

"They were all about abolishing a system that had taken a whole group of people and dehumanized them. Given that I experienced dehumanization throughout the 17 years of my incarceration, and I've witnessed it perpetrated against my fellow captives, I really believe that this current system of incarceration needs to go. Anything that has racism as its foundation needs to be uprooted and started from scratch," says Wilson.

Uprooting the current criminal legal system and replacing it with one focused on restoration, rather than punishment, could be a long time in the making. But Wilson and the ACLU of Wisconsin are working on small steps and incremental changes, which they see reflected in Governor Tony Evers' 2021-2023 biennial budget proposal.

"It's not a budget that we would have written, but we can get on board with a lot of the proposals because we believe that it will have a significant impact," Wilson explains.

Wilson's focus right now is training people to share their concerns and support for the budget at public hearings in front of the Joint Committee on Finance. The first of three scheduled hearings is Friday, April 9 in Whitewater.

Ben Binversie was a producer with WUWM's Lake Effect program.