The Capital Times held a panel discussion Tuesday evening to discuss inequities and reforms in the criminal justice system on both a national and state level.
Held at the High Noon Saloon on East Washington Avenue, the panel featured Dane County Circuit Court Judge-elect Everett Mitchell, former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager and famed “Making a Murderer” defense attorney Dean Strang.
The panel began by focusing on juvenile justice. After discussing a stand-out case of a violent 14-year-old repeat offender, Lautenschlager proposed that many of the inequities that plague the juvenile detention system stem from a scarcity in resources, in regards to both finances and labor.
“There has been so little offered within the system and the resources have been so sparse,” Lautenschlager said, “and since Act 10, it’s fair to say that those resources are even more sparse with longtime, career public servants who are leaving government service as soon as they can.”
Another main topic the panel discussed was systemic racial and class biases within the criminal justice system.
Mitchell stated that much of the reform needed in criminal justice should start with learning from past mistakes. He drew upon an example of how the system dealt with the '90s crack cocaine epidemic versus its current handling of the rise of heroin.
“I’m noticing that the discussion of heroin is totally different. There is talk about treatment, there is talk about counselors,” Mitchell said. “They’re even proposing legislation about how now we [need] to get more treatment into the hands of these communities that are struggling with heroin.”
However, Mitchell also noted a potential bias in the different handlings of the two epidemics.
“The pessimist in me says they just see these people differently than they saw my relatives and so they’re able to find these resources because the look is different than it was before,” he said.
To wrap up the talk, audience members submitted questions to the panel. Of main interest were DNA evidence and overly-aggressive prosecutors--topics that were of main concern in the Steven Avery case depicted in the Netflix docu-series “Making a Murderer.”
Strang pointed out that to fix the problems that exist within the criminal justice system, procedural improvements can only do so much.
“What we need to understand is that if we think about justice as a cathedral, procedural protections are just the scaffolding erected around the cathedral.” Strang said.
“There is no direct connective tissue between the scaffolding … and the project of justice other than the human beings, the people you hire, the people we elect to the bench, the public defenders, the probation agents, the police officers. Humans are always the connective tissue to fix the cathedral,” he said.