Madison Commons

Rethinking youth justice in the Madison Police Department

MADISON, Wis. - Last year, Madison Police handed out 861 traffic citations to Madison youth from 12 to 16. Seventy-five percent were given to youth of color.

The Madison Police Department has been looking at statistics like this for years, trying to figure out why severe racial disparities in policing exist in the Madison community.

Capt. Joe Balles of Madison's South District leads the MPD restorative justice program.

"It's more than police taking an overly aggressive enforcement action on that segment of the community," Balles said. "It's much bigger than that."

At the end of September, the Madison Police Department launched a citywide restorative justice program to help get Madison youth on the right track. A collaborative effort between MPD, YWCA Madison and Dane County TimeBank, this program will give youth between the ages of 12 and 16 a chance to resolve citations outside the courtroom for non-traffic violations like property damage, theft or disorderly conduct.

How it works

"The traditional processes of us just writing a ticket for a monetary fine and sending them to municipal court obviously has no impact on that behavior," Balles said.

This plan offers an alternative solution, allowing youth to take responsibility for their actions without an arrest staining their personal record.

Participation is voluntary, and those who choose this option are sent to a restorative justice court in their high school or community, where their trained peers offer a solution for the youth to mend relations with those who were negatively impacted by the offense.

Lorrie Hurckes, youth court coordinator and co-director of Dane County TimeBank, has been organizing youth courts since they started in the Darbo-Worthington community in 2006.

"It's youth holding other youth accountable," Hurckes said. "Instead of an adult saying you've done this wrong, it's kids who are dealing with a lot of the same types of pressures and challenges."

In order to reconcile for the harm done, the peer court assigns the youth a job based on their interests and career goals. For instance, if the youth is interested in becoming a veterinarian, they might be assigned to volunteer at local veterinary clinic. If they are interested in the arts, they could be asked to lead a number of art classes in the community.

"[Youth courts] put lots of strength-based [sentences] in place for youth so they are actually getting a chance to be more supported than the traditional system can allow," Hurckes said. "They take responsibility for the harm that has happened and become more positively engaged with the community."

The purpose of these assignments is to show the youth that there are options for positive community engagement that appeal to their personal interests and can continue beyond the time of their sentence.

Other restorative and strength-based sentences could include writing an essay or apology letter to the party who suffered harm or enrolling in a mentoring or conflict resolution program.

In addition, MPD hopes this option will help deter this youth group from future crimes so they can avoid becoming another statistic in Madison's alarmingly disparate criminal justice system.

The broader issues

Disparities in Madison span across categories such as education, employment, poverty and incarceration rates. The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families' "Race to Equity Report" identifies African American adults in Madison as being eight times more likely to be arrested in Dane County than whites.

There are a host of issues that are contributing to the grossly disparate levels of police contact in Madison. Over-policing in black neighborhoods and arresting for crimes of poverty, like theft, have been central parts of the discussion in Madison recently.

Specifically for youth in this 12 to 16 age group, Balles suggested this group of minority youth might experience frequent police contact due to issues at home--be it discipline, family structure, parent involvement or income.

This is a distressing problem with no clear-cut solution, given the 74 percent of African American youth (compared to 5.5 percent of white youth) who live in poverty in Madison.

But this youth initiative is a step in the right direction. It is part of MPD's larger restorative justice plan, outlined in "Trust-Based Initiatives and Collaborative Efforts with Madison's Diverse Community."

This document, released in February, explains the history of MPD's participation in task forces and initiatives to address racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system. It addresses solutions in community outreach, accountability measures, personnel and training.

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