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Milwaukee County Executive Candidates Share Ideas On How To Keep People Out Of Jail

Chuck Quirmbach
(From left) Moderator Barbara Beckert, David Crowley, Brian Kennedy, Chris Larson, Theo Lipscomb and Jim Sullivan at Tuesday's Milwaukee County executive forum.

The candidates for Milwaukee County executive are trying to spell out some differences on criminal justice reform, mental health and disability issues.

Five of the six people running to replace retiring incumbent Chris Abele took part in a forum Tuesday. The Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition, the Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force and the Miracle Network co-sponsored the event. So, most of the questions pertained to what the next county executive will do on the social service issues that make up a big chunk of the Milwaukee County budget.  

When it comes to mental health and substance abuse problems that often lead to people being arrested and spending time in the county court system, jail or state prison, candidate Bryan Kennedy recommends better treatment and care to get people healthy. The Glendale mayor also says in his local municipal court, there's been a big reduction in people possibly later getting arrested for unpaid fines.

"If you can pay $5 a month but you can pay it off over time, we will work with you. So we've now significantly reduced the number of commitments through the North Shore court. But we did so by looking at folks and considering these are human beings," Kennedy said.

County executive candidate and Milwaukee state Sen. Chris Larson urges more investment in local inmates to reduce recidivism. 

"Give them access to a GED, to a skill. So that they come out and we say, 'It was great getting to know you. We hope we never see you in here again.' Right? Get them out. Get them on a better path to success. That's why it's called the House of Corrections, and under my leadership, that's what we're going to return to," Larson said.

Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb says if he becomes county executive, he'll try to improve coordination of medical care for jail inmates who have mental health problems.

"For instance, I asked, when I last toured the jail, does our electronic medical records system 'talk?' Can we communicate? No. It's a HIPAA violation. I'm not talking about can I see it. I'm asking, can medical professionals talk and communicate and could those who are working with them coordinate their care?" Lipscomb said.

Candidate Jim Sullivan, who's directed the county's Child Support Services under Chris Abele, says there's already been a big improvement in how the county treats inmates. He wants to keep the pressure on Republican state lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility and accept more federal funds under the Affordable Care Act. 

"This is another area where Medicaid expansion would help a great deal, in order to make sure people have access to mental health services. So they don't end up being incarcerated, when what they really need is treatment," Sullivan said.

Milwaukee state Rep. David Crowley says as a legislative assistant for the County Board he helped with efforts to remove the House of Correction from the control of former conservative Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. Crowley says as county executive, he'd expand county mobile crisis units that help intervene with the mentally ill. 

"Making sure that we are deploying a unit out there with the police department. Not just the sheriff, but working with every municipality across Milwaukee County, making sure that we're doing everything on the front-end to get people the services they absolutely need," Crowley said.

The sixth candidate for Milwaukee County executive, Purnima Nath, attended the forum. But she was not allowed to take part because she missed a deadline in responding to the event's organizers. 

The primary election for county executive is Feb. 18. The top two vote-getters will face off in April. 

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