Leadership Wisconsin’s criminal justice seminar tugs at heartstrings


Written by Mary Hookham, Janesville, WI

Leadership Wisconsin Group XVII’s seminar centering on the study of criminal justice issues in Madison proved useful and interesting to all participants as they listened to speakers, toured local facilities and evaluated Wisconsin statistics. But most importantly, it enlightened the Fellows of Group XVII when they heard personal, heart-wrenching stories from group members.

The seminar opened with a comprehensive tour of the Dane County Jail, where Fellows gained firsthand views and knowledge about life inside a jail. Two guards provided a behind-the-scenes look to help Fellows understand the basic concepts of happenings inside the jail. They reminded the group that jailers, police officers and judges are just the law enforcers; they do not create the laws.

Fellows then enjoyed a lunch catered by Marigold Kitchen while they visited with Representative Rob Hutton, 13th Assembly District, and Ryan Knocke of Representative Evan Goyke’s staff. Goyke is from the 18th Assembly District. Fellows felt energized and positive after debriefing their conversations with Hutton and Knocke; many agreed Hutton uses a community safety lens when doing his work and addresses solutions to common issues using a whole-community perspective while Knocke encouraged Fellows to participate in public service and the general sharing of and listening to each other’s ideas and solutions.

Karen McKeown, state health administrator with the Division of Public Health, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and Julia Sherman, Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project coordinator, spoke about substance abuse trends, drivers and policies. Fellows learned rural areas in Wisconsin, and nationwide, are some of the hardest hit areas with drugs. McKeown said 17 priority areas to improve Wisconsin health include nutrition and physical activity, tobacco use, alcohol use, opioid use and suicide prevention.

Fellows were especially touched when group member Aurora Conley of Bad River Indian Reservation gave a presentation about syringe use in Indian country. Conley operates a needle exchange in her basement as part of her effort to reduce the spread of Hepatitis C from needle sharing. She shared her story of working tirelessly to get the program implemented in her community even though it was too late to help many community members, including one of her cousins. Fellows were emotional after her presentation and felt grateful to her for having the courage to share her story that was so heartbreaking and hopeful.

Leaders at The Grow Academy of Oregon provided Fellows with a comprehensive tour of their facility and personal interaction with youth currently enrolled in their program. The Academy runs a residential, 120-day program that can serve up to 12 male youth ages 14 to 18 at any time. The program offers participants supervision, support and an agricultural-science curriculum providing skills to be used on-site and throughout their lives.

Pam Oliver, professor of sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Sociology, presented information racial disparities in incarceration. She informed the group that politically-motivated choices are primarily responsible for higher incarceration rates. Oliver explained that politics are at the center of every social issue, including poverty, which is a serious issue nationwide.

The Fellows then listened to various viewpoints on criminal justice and racial disparities from experts Jason Gonzalez, criminal defense attorney at Gonzalez Law Office and alderman for the city of Fitchburg District 3; Maggie Thomas, probation agent with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections; and Judge William Hanrahan, Dane County Circuit Court Branch 7. These professionals shared their experiences working in the criminal justice field and provided words of leadership and encouragement for the Fellows.

Lieutenant Chad Brecklin of the Fitchburg Police Department shared his extensive knowledge about policing in the 21st century in a restricted-resource community. He discussed the struggle of distinguishing between serving and protecting and complete transparency through the use of body cams, social media and websites. He encouraged positive community involvement and asked citizens to help police officers do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Later that evening, the Fellows were treated to another personal connection with criminal justice when Fellow Harry Hertel, attorney at Hertel Law, S.C. of Eau Claire, shared many of his experiences over dinner at the Great Dane in Fitchburg. Hertel shared the limelight that evening with Chris Van Wagner, criminal and O.W.I. defense attorney and member of Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Honorable Ellen Berz, circuit court judge branch 11. The panel of experts shared stories, experiences and plenty of laughs with the group.

The group started off its last day in Madison with a tour of the FEED Kitchen hosted by Carmella Glenn, coordinator at Just Bakery. Just Bakery is a program that teaches skills for careers in baking and food safety. The program is a four-month training course that helps prepare formerly-incarcerated individuals to successfully re-enter the workforce. Glenn works closely with Linda Ketcham, executive director at Madison-Area Urban Ministry and Nasra Wehelie, development director at Madison-Area Urban Ministry.

The group closed the seminar with a Feeling Wheel check-in. Fellows felt enriched, thoughtful, satisfied with the knowledge they gained, frustrated with complications within the system, energized to do more, proud, excited, grateful, lucky, sad, overwhelmed, gridlocked, committed, conflicted, shocktimistic (shocked and optimistic), fortunate, ashamed, empowered and hopeful.

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