Criminals need school, not jail
State Parole Commission head to discuss problems with the system at The Gathering
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
What: The Gathering of the Church of Green Bay.
When: Oct. 7-8, opens with the Celebration of the Eucharist by Bp. David Zubik at 9 a.m., Friday.
Where: St. Norbert College, De Pere
Why: To come together with Catholics from around the diocese to pray, learn, share faith, be renewed, develop skills, celebrate your beliefs and enrich your spiritual life.
Registration: For materials, call 1-877-500-3580, ext. 8272, or (920)272-8272.
"Education NOT Incarceration" is more than the title of Lenard Wells' feature presentation at the 2005 Gathering of the Church of Green Bay. It's his passion.
Wells, a retired lieutenant from the Milwaukee Police Department, was appointed chair of the state Parole Commission in 2003. He is a strong advocate for reversing the federal and state government trend to increase corrections budgets at the expense of education.
"I can look back at my 27 years in law enforcement," he said. "I didn't accomplish anything. I arrested a bunch of African American and Latino drug offenders who, after their release, ended up going back to prison. We've got to do something different."
"I've seen it across the spectrum," he added. "The kids that drop out of school are the ones on the cell blocks. There is a direct connection between the lack of education and incarceration."
Wells will offer plenty of statistics at The Gathering to support the correlation between education and imprisonment. He said he is appalled by the number of minorities behind bars. About half of the nation's 2.2 million prisoners are black.
"The greatest civil crisis of the 21st century is the incarceration of the African American male," said Wells. "Something must be done to stop this runaway train. We need to get every race concerned."
The website www.blackcommentator.com ran a story entitled "The Ten Worst Places to be Black." Wisconsin tops the list as the worst state for blacks to live in the country. A study was conducted measuring states in such areas as family income, home ownership, education levels, unemployment, prosecution and incarceration. Wisconsin leads the nation in the percentage of its black citizens in prison.
"Common sense would tell you that you don't want that reputation," said Wells. "People have to put this problem on the plate. It's not on the plates of elected officials' agendas. Elected officials don't want to hang their hats on prison reform."
"Prison is a closed shop," he added. "Unless you've walked within the walls, you don't think about it or talk about it. We have to bring the issue up close and personal. Many of our prisons are overcrowded, but you don't believe it, unless you've seen it."
In addition to educating young people to prevent them from entering the prison system, Wells advocates more educational support for those behind bars, to help prevent reentry following their release. He points to Truth-In-Sentencing, implemented in Wisconsin on Dec. 31, 1999, as a contributing problem.
"With Truth-In-Sentencing, inmates know they must serve the entire sentence imposed by the court," said Wells. "They figure they are stuck there for a certain number of years without
parole, so many don't get involved in programs designed to help them once they get out."
Wells said his experience in law enforcement gives him perspective in his current position.
"It brings a humility to what I do," he said. "As a law enforcement officer, once your testimony is complete, you never follow the case. Most cops don't follow the cases because it creates a bias. You just do your job. I'm now seeing some of the sentences, and it's shocking. You don't have straight victories in the courts. There is the family of the victim, and the family members of the prosecuted offender now become victims. Our foster care system is exploding because parents are being locked up. Grandparents, aunts and uncles are being forced to raise kids because of incarceration. We've created that."
"I'm not saying that we should give shorter sentences to murderers or let violent offenders go free," he added. "Punishments have become so, so long for all crimes. If you polled the (law enforcement) officers, I think you would find that they would be very surprised by the length of the sentences for certain crimes."
In his presentation, Wells will walk the audience through the system from arrest through incarceration. The attitudes in the judicial system have changed over the years, he said.
"I remember the empathy I once saw from the bench," he said. "Today, many people in the criminal justice system are some of the most unforgiving people. We are supposed to be the land where everyone gets a second chance. I don't see it."
"I want some answers," he added. "I want to see change. I pray about it. I pray a lot."