Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Q and A with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm

Chisholm answers questions on John Doe, elections integrity, and crime in Milwaukee County

You might not realize it, but there's a very important election coming up for voters in Milwaukee County in August -- in fact, it may be the most important election this cycle.

I'm talking about the election for Milwaukee County District Attorney. I was lucky enough to be able to sit down and speak to current DA John Chisholm, who's held the job since 2007 and is running for reelection.

You're soon to be running for reelection to your current office. Why do you deserve another term, and what's something you'd like voters to know you'll fight for if you do win again?

I believe I deserve another term because our office, under my leadership, is now nationally recognized as an office that has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform, but doing so in a way that makes sure that we keep people safe, and in a way that actually respects their civil liberties and their rights.

The programs that have been the foundation of the office the last ten years have been things like community prosecution, where we put experienced assistant DAs out in the community with the express goal of helping people solve their problems at a neighborhood level and they get to direct how we solve those problems. 

That's a radical change that we do in conjunction with community policing strategies, but always, always with neighborhood based organizations that help us identify what the problems are and who the problem-makers are. Then we try to come up with solutions. 

It's a public health model called "crime prevention through environmental design." Sometimes it's just tying neighbors together so that they can work with each other to identify the problems. It could be a nuisance property; a drug house; an abandoned home; it could be a group of young individuals who are committing crimes, and we want to focus on them. We want to be able to get information from the community to help identify what the problems are so you're not over policing, you're not doing things that are making the good people angry, because they're being stopped unnecessarily or treated unfairly. So that's one of the goals. 

The next thing we've done is we've implemented a nationally recognized program for identifying people who are arrested, and it's really four categories: people with mental illness; with drug addiction; with alcohol abuse issues; and youthful offenders who are just not thinking clearly. A lot of the time those individuals have been exposed to a lot of trauma in their life and a lot of adverse conditions like poverty, poor school conditions, poor environmental conditions and poor health care. We really enhanced the office's ability to focus on, for example, violent sex offenders, [as well as] people using guns to commit crimes. I've established a witness protection unit, which is really rare for a DAs office. 

I specifically worked with Carmen Pitre from Sojourner Family Peace to come up with this national model for the Sojourner Family Peace Center, which actually co-locates Children's Hospital with advocates from Sojourner and my own prosecutors and advocates, and then all of the social services for the county are all located in one beautiful new building. 

We fundamentally understand now that kids exposed to violence are more likely to commit violence. If you do a search of independent validators, they would generally say that there's three or four prosecutors in the country who are recognized by foundations that are interested in criminal justice system reform (by the US department of justice, by academic institutions, as well as prosecutors that are all willing to lead the way on systemic change). We believe that we can keep people safe, but we can do it by relying less on jail and prisons and working more with assets in the community to solve these problems. 

An article in the New Yorker by Jeffrey Toobin (The Milwaukee Experiment”) was the first time people came to understand some of the things that I'm doing, because we're not a PR firm. We have such limited resources, and everybody in the office is doing actual work every day. I don't have anything like a public information officer, so it's really about addressing the community's problems and solving them, not taking credit for them. I don't care about the credit -- I care about the results.

Click below to read more of this interview, including questions on John Doe, crime in Milwaukee County, and what should be done about elections integrity.

The John Doe II court case is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. You were one of three DAs in Wisconsin to file the writ of certiorari. A lot of Wisconsinites are upset with this lawsuit, while others view it as imperative to appeal to the High Court. Why is this case so important? What do you hope to see happen?

I fundamentally believe that everybody has to follow the same rules. One of the commitments I made early on was that I would focus on public integrity. That meant holding police officers accountable when they committed misconduct; that meant holding lawyers accountable when they committed misconduct; it meant making sure that public officials were doing the job they were hired to do, and do it in an ethical and principled way without taking advantage of the system. 

One of those areas is in campaign finance reform. Everyone for the last two or three decades has understood certain ground rules, that you could raise money from anybody that you wanted to as long as you reported it. But now the country has been experiencing this overwhelming wave of what I call "disguised contributions," stemming from Citizens United

What's interesting is that Citizens United was predicated on the notion that if you have truly independent expenditures, there shouldn't be any basis for corruption. But if there isn't any independence, if it’s all done in a hidden, disguised, dark money way, that's a problem. That's the fundamental issue that we believe the Wisconsin Supreme Court got wrong.

The second issue was that we believe everybody deserves to be treated fairly. We don't think that the special prosecutor in this case was treated fairly because any time you go in front of a judge, you should have the right to say, "Look, I think that you may be biased in this case and I ask you to look at that; do some self examination, and reflection. And if you think it has even the appearance of being biased, you should step away from it." 

Well, members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court were given that opportunity and refused to do it, even though they knew of the significant contributions that the unnamed parties had made to their particular campaigns in the past. 

So those are the main issues. Now why is it important? I'd say there are four things that are taking place in the legal world that are important to Wisconsin. You have the issue of redistricting that is of critical importance -- so that you have fair representation, people's views are better represented than they are currently. You have the voter ID issue. I strongly believe that you have to have voting integrity, but this law is really designed to suppress people from voting, not to enhance people's ability to vote. The third thing is right to work. That's a major issue as well. I believe people should have the right to collectively organize and establish workplace conditions and wages. 

All of those are really important, but they pale in significance compared to addressing the issue of hidden contributions in campaigns. … I do think that there has to be reasonable limitations because otherwise concentrated wealth is going to have a disproportionate impact on the people that get elected. 

You have people that want to [get elected] for the job's sake, but if they're being told "Look, you have to adopt this extreme position" [to get donors] then ... they become scared and start saying "Trump-isms." You start doing these extreme statements, and that can't function in a representative democracy when you don't have public service-minded people who are doing the job to serve everybody. 

I have strong democratic values on certain issues but at the end of the day I'm a prosecutor and I have to treat everybody fairly. I don't look at whether they're a D or an R, I look at what are the facts, what's my obligation under the law. That should be everybody who gets elected -- at some point in time they should say "OK, I've been elected to represent everybody and I have to make decisions that are in the best interest of everybody. I can have my strong views but I have to work with other people." That will not happen as long as this dark money is allowed to dominate politics. 

It's even come into the local level. That's where we have to, as a country and as a state, and even as a community, stand up and say "let's shine some sunlight on this." At the end of the day if people say "I'm fine with that, I don't care," then we have nothing to complain about. But I don't really think people feel that way, even conservatives don't feel that way, social liberal progressives don't feel that way. That's one area that I think everybody kind of comes together on and says "enough's enough."

Crime in Milwaukee County has climbed substantially in the past few years, and the City of Milwaukee's violent crime rate even surpassed Chicago's last year. How will your office coordinate with police agencies in the area, and how do you plan to curtail the rise in violence?

My entire career has been focused on violent crime prevention and intervention, so I cut my teeth as a violent crime prosecutor. One of the issues that I just feel so strongly on is that we have to put all of our resources into identifying those people most likely to commit violent crimes, then be able to aggressively investigate and prosecute them. 

What a lot of people will say is that you have to lock everybody up and throw away the key in order to reduce violent crime. People forget for six out of the last eight years we actually achieved some of our lowest violent crime rates in 30 years. That was under my leadership and in conjunction with police efforts and community based efforts.

You're absolutely right, a major concern is in 2015 we saw this spike in violence and it cannot be ignored, and it can't be downplayed. But people don't really know all of the reasons behind it and that includes us. You get these fluctuations and you have to take them serious. What I will say is we're already down 36 percent from where we were last year in homicides. That means that we're starting to put more emphasis on those individuals. It's always a small number of individuals that create this disproportionate harm, whether it's the car-jacking issue or the gun violence issue. 

Here's the other thing we know: People who commit these offenses have oftentimes been victims of the same offenses. It's a relatively small group in a deeply concentrated  geographic area. The disproportionate amount of victims are people who are in disadvantaged environments to begin with. That's where I believe in that community prosecution-based strategy where we actually get in there and help. Identify the really bad actors who have to be removed from the community, but then do things to intercept people who are on a bad track early on so it doesn't spill out of control. 

That's why I believe in the Sojourner Family Peace model. You have to have the short term strategy and then the long term strategy. I'm totally committed to public safety and keeping this community safe -- but let's do it in an intelligent, thoughtful, and evidence-based way, and not allow ourselves to go back to the old rhetoric of "we're gonna solve this problem by locking everybody up," because that's been proven not to work. We have one of the largest prison populations. I've done a lot of work to actually reduce that population. I did at the same time that we reduced violent crime. That has to be the strategy.

Some people have accused you of being a "hyper partisan,” in part because of the John Doe investigations. What would your response to that be?

It simply isn't true. I can demonstrate that in so many different ways, that at the end of the day I've always taken my obligation to be a fair, principled prosecutor above my political interest. 

People who say that I was hyper partisan, I would ask them to point out what I did if I were hyper partisan. I've never discussed any of the facts or details related to the John Doe investigation. I followed my obligation under the law and did so in a fair and principled way even though I was being unfairly attacked, even though the people who were subject of that investigation were distorting things, engaging in propaganda and outright lies. I never responded in kind.

What you need is more resources for elections, capacity and training for officials, and more education for the voters. That's where you really needed the emphasis. But instead it got twisted. 

I've prosecuted Republicans, and I've prosecuted Democrats for violating election integrity. At the end of the day I have to make decisions that are oftentimes deeply unpopular on both sides. If you don't accept that, if you're not willing to deal with that, then you really shouldn't be in this job. 

I'm vested by the state with the authority to do the most important thing that the state can do to somebody, which is to take someone’s liberty away. They put me in as a gatekeeper to make those decisions. You have to be a principled person, you have to be ethical and you have to do so in a way that's committed to following the law, even if it's in the context, for example, of the Dontre Hamilton case. 

That's one case where there was tremendous political pressure to do a certain thing. What my obligation was, as tragic as that event was, as unnecessary as that death was, I agree with all of those points, at the end of the day I had to look at what the facts are, what the law was and whether I could prove that the officer had engaged in an act that was criminal in nature. With the facts that I had from the citizen witnesses, from all of the independent review, I wouldn't have been able to do that. If I can't do that my obligation as a prosecutor is not to charge if I can't prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. 

That's the difference between me and almost any other elected official, is I have this whole set of oversight on me, not the least of which is the ethical rules that prosecutors have to follow. If you don't follow those, you'll lose your license, and that means you can't be a prosecutor. 

The courts act as oversight for us, and the public acts as an oversight because we are elected and ultimately accountable to them. My response to that accountability is you want somebody like me, who's committed to doing the job in an ethical and fair way. If you just go with somebody that you think is going to do what you want them to do, it takes you on a very bad path. 

You can make the argument that we have so many people in jail and prison because this “tough on crime” rhetoric has been going on for 40 years and because it's a political process. A lot of prosecutors engage [the electorate] by saying, "Well, I'll just lock everybody up and throw away the key." That has a very negative impact on minority communities and others. We know that from a historical standpoint. 

What I say to them is look at the big picture: you may be unhappy with me for a particular case, whether you're a conservative or a liberal, but look at my overall record both on public safety and on system reform. Look at my experience. I've got 22 years as a prosecutor, ten as an elected official. I'm not just recognized locally because of my relationships and experience with local officials in solving these problems, but people outside of Wisconsin are coming to Milwaukee to see what we're doing.

That's why I think the citizens have been well-served by my administration. It's hard to find people that have that level of experience and commitment. It's not an easy job, you're not doing it for the money and I'm not doing it because I'm trying to run for some higher office. In the context of an election, you have to ask those tough questions of somebody that is running for this office, including "What's their motivation? What's their experience? Is there some outside agenda that's in place there? Or are you just generally motivated because you want to do public service?" 

I accept anybody that wants to do [this job] for public service reasons, but I'm skeptical of anybody that's doing it because they might have a hidden agenda.

Groups like Club For Growth certainly want to try and take you out in this election. How much do you think third party money and ads are going to play a role in this race?

You never know! That's the problem in today's world, you just don't know. The answer in the past would have been none. Even if the answer was, "yeah, they'll do a lot," you could never count whether they were for you or against you, that they would get their messaging right because they'd be going off on their own agenda. That was the idea behind that separation [between candidates and third party groups]. 

There's no question that those entities have their own agenda, and it has nothing to do with my job as the district attorney and keeping people safe in an effective way. It's all about allowing this disguised money to dominate elections because that's what their interest is. 

It's perfectly fine for them to engage in the process but the playing field should be even for everybody. When you can bring enormous amounts of corporate money into play and just flood an election cycle with messaging that is often hateful, distorted, lies and just outright misrepresentations, that affects the electorate. Everyone knows that it does, and it's not a healthy environment to do this kind of work in.

Just for fun...who's taller? You or Tom Barrett?

I've got Tom by a couple inches, but keep in mind my son Ted Chisholm has got me by a half inch now, and he's 18. As far as height and elected officials, I think [former Milwaukee] Mayor John Norquist had me by about an inch.

1 comment:

  1. Fine documentation of our excellent district attorney. Thanks for giving him this space.