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WUWM & MPTV Special SeriesWhy are so many Wisconsinites behind bars?And, what are the costs?In the 2010 Census, Wisconsin had the highest percentage of incarcerated black men in the nation. One out of every eight black men of working age is behind bars. In Milwaukee County, more than half of African American men in their thirties have served time in prison.Over the course of six months, WUWM and MPTV explored Wisconsin's high rate of black male incarceration, through expert analysis and personal stories.Why is the rate so high?How does imprisonment affect the men and their futures, as well as their families, neighborhoods and the region's economy?What are possible solutions?Contribute Your IdeasDo you have questions you'd like to have answered? Stories you'd like to share? Please share your questions and comments with us.

Milwaukee County's Drug Treatment Court Keeps Some Men Out of Prison

Bob Bach

Alcohol and drug addiction treatment efforts are helping keep certain non-violent offenders out of prison in Milwaukee County.

Milwaukee started its drug treatment court in 2009 with money from the federal and state governments. The court gives non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems a choice of going to prison or participating in a strict recovery program. It demands counseling and 12 step meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous plus passing regular drug tests.

Judge Ellen Brostrom recently welcomed a group of about 100 people to her courtroom in Milwaukee's Safety Building to acknowledge Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court graduates.

“This is a great day where we celebrate some really hard work and significant accomplishments of these individuals,” Brostrom says.

The people gathered today include counselors and family members – they’re all here to congratulate a half-dozen graduates. Among them are Leander Esser and Elmo Jackson.

“I hope everyone else can make it like I did," graduate Esser says. "Twenty-seven years of doing drugs and they gave me a chance and I took it and I’m respected, I feel great about it."

“If I can do this, you can do this. These people are going to help you see who you really are,” Elmo Jackson adds.

Judge Brostrom praises and encourages the men. “If that isn’t one of the more profound lines I’ve heard, ‘he’s going to help you see who you really are,'" Brostrom says. "When people are deep in addiction, it’s a dark, dark, dark place and it’s hard to get out by yourself.  As you can see this is a rich and deep and multi-faceted program, it gives people hope."

Arthur Byas says the Drug Treatment Court program has given him a new chance at life, and he's making the most of it.

73-year-old Arthur Byas says he served prison sentences for drug crimes dating back to 1968, but his breakthrough came, when he learned to stop what he calls “criminal thinking.”

Today, Byas says he is two years sober and has regained self-respect.

“You are able to deal with life as it is, good bad or indifferent. That’s awesome, rather than hiding away from life," Byas says. "I wish everyone could get there."

For every ten people who participate in the program, four complete it. Capacity at any one time is 80.

Assemblyman Evan Goyke laments the fact that demand for service greatly exceeds available programming. He represents a Milwaukee district with a high rate of black males in prison. Goyke says families often call him seeking placement in alcohol and drug treatment programs for relatives bound for prison.

“Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court struggles often to find safe, reliable, secure living facilities," Goyke says. "We have a lack of quality treatment here in Milwaukee, and elsewhere as well. This is not a 'Milwaukee only' issue. We cannot treat everyone with those needs within the justice system."

Other efforts are underway to move more offenders into treatment versus prison. For instance, the group MICAH - Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope has embarked on what it calls the “11 by 15” campaign.

Rev. Willie Brisco explains that the goal is to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population by 11,000 by the year 2015. He wants state corrections officials to emulate Minnesota. It pumped more resources into treating addictions and mental health issues, rather than into prisons.

“We look at the demographics between us and Minnesota and we see that we have basically the same population, the same demographics, but they incarcerate half of the people that we do," Brisco says. "Their budget is not even half of what our budget is; our budget is now a billion dollar budget in Wisconsin."

Leaders here are taking note of programs that have reduced crime and recidivism elsewhere, according to Milwaukee County Chief Judge Jeff Kremers. He says planning is underway for a program here to treat repeat offenders who suffer from mental illness.

“They use a lot of resources in our community. They cycle back not only through the criminal justice system but also through the behavioral health system,” Kremers says.

While Kremers frets about limited space for diversionary placements, he knows they can be life changing and perhaps eventually erode Wisconsin’s high rate of black male incarceration.

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