I’d kept half an eye on the Dame County Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System, but my interest and hope has markedly increased with the beginnings of the Implementation Team work. When the Task Force Report came out I was impressed with the thorough documentation of the issues along with the well-researched and wide-ranging recommendations (totaling over 80 items). I also figured that it was another report that would gather dust, another example of study not leading to action. Everyone with any real power would congratulate themselves for having the courage to confront these maters, express horror at the findings documented, make vague noises about “doing something” and that would be that.
The Report was issued in September of 2009 and for the better part of a year, it looked like I was right, the the Report would be the end of any concerted attention to these maters. When African Americans are 30 times more likely than whites to be arrested for some drug offensives and fully one half of the young African American men are in prison, on probation/parole or in extended supervision, the status quo isn’t acceptable, but inertia is hard to overcome.
Then in June an Implementation Team was appointed and I started paying attention in earnest. True, the County Executive Kathleen Falk and the County Board did not follow the recommendation that the implementation committee be made up of Task Force members and gave the Team an impossible task, few resources and no budget, but there was now at least a possibility that this wouldn’t die a quiet death.
With that thought in mind, I began attending the Team meetings. It is far from clear what will happen with the recommendations of the Report, but having seen the Team in action I am confident that there will be no quiet death. They are going to keep this alive. They are committed to transforming Dane County from one of the worst places in terms of racial disparities in criminal justice to a leader in criminal justice equity.
The Team is still getting to know each other as well as beginning to set their priorities and develop strategies, tactics and a work plan. Even in these initial stages there is evidence that they understand that the important fact that achieving real change will require pushing some entrenched and powerful people out of their comfort zones. They also know that they need these seem people to trust them and partner with them. A delicate balance, still it is telling that at the last meeting more than one Team member quoted Frederick Douglass’ “Power concedes nothing without a demand” (these followed a reading of excerpts from his “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro“).
Two other examples of why I have a growing faith in this group.
At the June 12 meeting incoming DA Ismael Ozanne met with the Team. I had to leave early, but in the portion I saw the Team members were persistent in pressing Ozanne to make the recommendations a priority by offering solutions to difficulties raised while making it clear that excuses for doing nothing were not acceptable.
The June 17 meeting included a discussion with Carl Hampton of the County Executive’s office. This was prompted by calls made by Hampton to those members of the Team appointed by Kathleen Falk. The calls apparently offered the advice that pushing recommendations that required budgeting any money were strongly discouraged. To a person, the Team members expressed their displeasure at the what they perceived as an attempt to divide the Team. Some Team members also expressed displeasure at their autonomy and integrity being undermined by the calls.
In both these cases, the Team conceded nothing to power.
As I said above, this is an impossible task that will require finding a delicate balance. Public attention and involvement will be crucial.
I think the next meeting of the Team is August 9, 2010.
Celia Jackson, a former Task Force member and the Chair of the Team will be talking about the Report and the Team at the Progressive Dane General Membership Meeting on Wednesday July 28 (Middleton Fire District Building. 7600 University Ave, 6:30 – 8:30). As always, the public is welcome. Come and exchange ideas about what we can do to help with this important work.
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