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Wisconsin Lawmakers Revisit Mandatory Minimums

Tracy King, fotolia

Mandatory minimum prison sentencing have been a hot topic as of late amongst Wisconsin lawmakers.

They're consideringone measurethat would mandate a three-year sentence for someone caught with a gun illegally. A second bill would require up to five-year prison sentences for a host of other crimes, including homicide, carjacking and child trafficking.  The state Senate has already passed both measures, but not everyone agrees that more prison time is the way to go.

Wayne Murphy says he’s the first person to admit that he’s made a lot of mistakes in life. He spent eight years in prison for a number of crimes, but says that since his probation ended in 2013, he’s steered clear of trouble. He says one of the main reason behind his prison sentence was his uncontrollable anger.

Murphy says what he really needed was to release his anger and someone to talk to would have helped.

“I wouldn’t have a criminal record right now if I didn’t bottle stuff up. If I didn’t keep it to myself and take so much crap from so many sources and internalize it all and then explode. I didn’t know how to express myself. A lot of people find a stigma about expressing themselves. That’s girls, girls be doing that. You know a lot of boys, they got that stigma. You know now you tough. You can take it. You ain’t gotta cry. No, you’re a boy, you’re a man, you gotta say how you feel,” he says.

Murphy says if not, you hold in those negative thoughts and eventually begin to act upon them. He says that while he deserved his time in prison, what would have served him and everyone else doing time best is meeting with a mental health professional early on.

“Where all things should start is with a mental assessment. You need to understand what’s going on in a person’s head, how they arrived here and how they became this person. Try to find out what makes a person tick. Even a DA can get a better understanding of how to sentence this person once that mental assessment is taken care of,” Murphy says. 

Murphy says mandatory minimums are not the way to go because depending on what a mental health assessment may find, not everyone who commits a crime should go to prison or get the same amount of time.

Mandatory minimum sentences were first introduced in the U.S. in the 1950s for drug convictions but took off during the tough on crime era, which started in the 1970s. Most states have been moving away from the practice, which is why Nicole Porter says she’s surprised Wisconsin is revisiting. Porter is with the Sentencing Projectbased out of Washington D.C.

“It is surprising to me that Wisconsin is revisiting tough on crime laws in terms of reintroducing and advancing new enhancements and new mandatories for gun crimes, particularly given the recent era of bipartisan reform that had been happening nationally and even within the state of Wisconsin, where there had been support in recent years for expanding treatment,” Porter says.

Porter says in recent years Maryland, Florida and Illinois have had similar conversations about adopting new mandatory gun laws as a means of lowering street crime. But she says there’s no evidence to back up the notion that longer prison sentences deter people from committing crimes.

However, state Senator LaTonya Johnson disagrees. “When you look at the statistics and they talk about mandatory minimums not working, they are talking about nonviolent offenders. All of the statistics point to not incarcerating nonviolent offenders,” she says.

Johnson is from Milwaukee and is the original author of the Assembly legislation that would create a mandatory minimum sentence for violent offenders caught with guns. She says for her, it’s about ensuring the safety of children. Johnson says she wrote the legislation after the death of 10-year-old Sierra Guyton, who was hit by a stray bullet while on a playground.

“She was going to be the last child funeral that I attended if I had anything to do with it. But then after Sierra, there was Laylah Peterson, the five-year-old who was shot on her grandfather’s lap. Over 40 bullets went into that house, and it was the wrong address. Then there was baby Bill Thao. Forty-one bullets went into that house as he played with a toy,” she says.

Johnson says perpetrators had the wrong house with that shooting as well. She says she’s caught a lot of flack from people in her party for supporting this legislation, but for her, it’s the right thing to do.

Both mandatory minimums pieces of legislation are now in the hands of the state Assembly. A spokesperson for Speaker Robin Vos has said he’s talking with the Council of State Governments about an independent study that would explore the cost of such measures.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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