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PANEL MEMBERS—The Regional Prison Fellowship Symposium was held Thursday, Sept. 19 at Riverside Golf Club in Menominee. Public safety and crime were key issues discussed. About 80 persons attended. Photo shows Judge Donald Zuidmulder, Dickinson County Sheriff Scott Celello and Menominee County Sheriff Kenny Marks responding to audience questions during panel discussions. Zuidmulder was keynote speaker.

Prison Fellowship Emphasize New Drug Court, Treatment

The annual symposium on public safety and crime was held Thursday, Sept. 19 at the Riverside Golf Club in Menominee with 13 elected officials as speakers. About 80 people attended the free event sponsored by Prison Fellowship, a national non-profit organization. Prison Fellowship moderator James Burke welcomed the audience and introduced the official speakers and discussion panel, which included experts from the judicial system, law-enforcement, elected state representatives, state corrections and parole, and the Marinette County Board. Keynote speakers were Judge Donald Zuidmulder, Circuit Court Judge from Branch I of Brown County; and Sheriff Kenny Marks of Menominee County. 

Weather conditions precluded MI State Representative Ed McBroom from making the afternoon flight from Lansing, Mi. for the meeting, and Iron County Sheriff Mark Valesano had a death in the family.   

Various aspects of public safety and crime were discussed during the evening, and several things were generally agreed upon. Leaders in civil authority realized that business as usual wasn’t effective or acceptable; the community needed to be educated about how to get involved without waiting for the government to provide ever fewer available resources; cooperation would be needed at every level; there are no silver bullets; and a change of thinking and a change of heart needs to be achieved in offenders in order to impact the epidemic of repeat arrests. 

In his address, Menominee County Sheriff Kenny Marks reported, 2.3 million people are incarcerated in American jails and prisons - the largest inmate population in the world.  He said that the prison population has increased 480% since 1980.  While most inmates will eventually be released, he said that statistically two-thirds will be re-arrested within three years at a huge financial cost to the tax-payers and a terrible emotional cost to the new victims.  While he affirmed his commitment to public safety and arresting criminals, he said that by itself catch and release doesn’t work because it doesn’t address the real problem of crime.  Ultimately, crime is a matter of the heart. 

Sheriff Marks said that the heart must change before there can be a change of behavior that ends repeat arrests. He emphasized that people need more than education and a job. He asserted that people need right thinking. As evidence of that, he referred to the fact that educated and employed people are arrested and incarcerated. He cited several programs that he has initiated and his commitment to addressing the issues at meetings such as this. We can make a difference by one heart and one life at a time. That is why I applaud Prison Fellowship for working with inmates and released offenders to help them begin a new life.

Judge Donald Zuidmulder explained that typically a first offender is given probation, then jail time, and finally prison time. But then what? If that doesn’t change the behavior, what else is there?  Judge Zuidmulder stated that traditional criminal justice was designed to keep the law-abiding citizen from committing crime.  But we’ve designed a system for you but not for those who do break the law. 

Continuing, Judge Zuidmulder said the economic crisis caused policy makers to rethink criminal justice and reflect on how it can be made more effective. He explained that law-enforcement and the courts are designed to protect both public safety and protect the quality of life in the community, and it became clear that specialty courts would do a better job with less money spent. Rather than merely sending people back to jail to continue the cycle of repeat arrests, the specialty courts provide means by which the offender can receive treatment and be held accountable. And rather than just punishing offenders, they are working to see a change of behavior. 

Judge Zuidmulder further pointed out that recently 14 offenders graduated from drug court, and they were clean and sober and now contributing members of society. He finished by quoting President George Washington’s farewell address, Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports....And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

After the keynote speakers the panel guests were introduced. They each briefly shared their particular perspectives on public safety and then the audience was invited to ask questions. A number of people asked questions about available drug treatment, the process by which it was ordered, and the services that community groups and church organizations were offering for offenders transitioning back into society. Several individuals identified themselves as former offenders and shared what had been effective for them to break the cycle of repeat arrests, and each of them identified a key aspect being that caring people provided accountability and a sense of belonging as they transitioned back into society.

Several different community groups and church organizations were also present in the audience, and each shared their experiences working to improve public safety and assist offenders. A number of these groups stated that they considered it a privilege to be a part of the process and to give of themselves without incurring expense on the taxpayers.  

It was noted that drugs have been moving into the area from the Chicago and elsewhere and that northeast Wisconsin and the western UP now have one of the worst heroine problems per capita in the nation. Several panel officials recognized that about 70% of prison inmates have chemical dependency and/or mental illness issues.

Marinette County Board Supervisor Paul Gustafson said that Judge Zuidmulder was an inspiration because of his dynamic approach to public safety and his commitment to behavior changes in offenders. Gustafson, who is on the criminal justice and law enforcement committees, discussed the coordinated interaction between law-enforcement and the county board.  He said, We are going to do our darnedest to make a difference.  

Concerning the drug challenges in the area, WI State Representative John Nygren warned, If we don’t fight this we are going to lose a generation of young people. He shared that his daughter had become addicted to heroine, and that it was important to look at alternative treatment because it cost $35,000 to incarcerate a man and $70,000 to incarcerate a woman each year. Treatment would be more appropriate and more effective. 

Dickinson County Sheriff Scott Celello stated the residents of this region are not sheltered from the problems of the rest of the country but noted that the number of people here tonight shows me the interest is there to tackle the problem. Sheriff Celello shared his own personal experiences, and noted the increased community involvement that has been generated in Dickinson County. 

Wisconsin Department of Corrections Parole Officer Stephanie Nault reported that there are 13 agents in her Peshtigo office covering northeast Wisconsin, and she alone has 150 people in her case load. Her goal is to help those offenders re-entering the community to make the changes necessary, and at the same time monitor them to keep the community safe. She observed that the various conversations throughout the meeting revealed that we are all moving in the same direction.

In answering questions from the public, Judge Zuidmulder remarked, being here has helped me. All these people are our people.  

The robust discussion led to the realization that great cooperation exists both between the state and county agencies and between agencies and various community groups, but the consensus was that increased cooperation and involvement was both desirable and necessary. 

Following the meeting there was a time of coffee and conversation in which Burke said, Prison Fellowship is committed to facilitating cooperation and seeing community safety increase.  I am grateful for those who came to me afterwards and asked how they could volunteer and get involved. Others who may be interested in helping are welcome to contact Mary Engle at mary_engle@pfm.org.

Prison Fellowship has a network of staff and volunteers committed to helping returning citizens and their families, and in the process creating safer communities for everyone. Tax-deductible contributions can be made to: Prison Fellowship, PO Box 8796, Grand Rapids, MI, 49518. 


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