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Sheriff David Mahoney: Reforming sentencing laws will keep communities safe

Sheriff David Mahoney: Reforming sentencing laws will keep communities safe

Our nation faces a critical juncture in its criminal justice policies. Current sentencing laws have put nearly 1 in 100 adults in prison, and have cost the country $80 billion each year. We can either continue with the harsh sentencing policies that got us here, or we can join the movement for change.

The U.S. Congress has an opportunity to change this with the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan bill currently moving in the U.S. Senate. It would strive to right the wrongs that have resulted in overcrowding of federal prisons.

We suffer from this problem here in Wisconsin too: We have spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars because we don’t distinguish between nonviolent offenders and violent individuals who truly threaten the safety of our streets. Here in Wisconsin, we must echo the call for reform.

Since 2006, I’ve been working hard to keep my promises to the people of Dane County — promises of keeping our communities safe and using our tax dollars wisely. In the Sheriff’s Office, we’ve focused on the issues that truly threaten our public safety: beefing up our patrols for drunk driving, preventing domestic violence, and working to end overcrowding in Dane County jails. It’s time that our federal representatives start supporting legislation that reflects what their constituents in Dane County and throughout Wisconsin want — law enforcement policies that keep us safe while saving taxpayers money.

That’s why I joined more than 165 police chiefs, prosecutors and sheriffs from across the country to form Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. Together, we’re speaking out about how unnecessary incarceration negatively impacts public safety. Congress has an opportunity to change this on a national scale — and we must tell them that Wisconsin supports this.

The federal bill would prevent nonviolent drug offenders from being subjected to harmful mandatory minimum sentences, giving these individuals an opportunity to become productive members of society instead of wasting away in prison. I know from my early years as an emergency medical technician, as well as from serving on the Wisconsin Supreme Court Task Force on Mental Health and Criminal Justice, that many nonviolent drug offenders do not pose a threat to public safety. Rather, they suffer from mental health issues that are not addressed in prison. Instead, they need treatment — which costs less and creates less recidivism than prison. This bill increases rehabilitation programs for prisoners.

As sheriff, I’ve also worked to make good on my promise to diversify the workforce in our department to reflect the demographics of those we serve. As local law enforcement officials, the concerns of Dane County’s citizens are important to us. Over time, it’s become clear to us that harsh mandatory minimum sentencing regulations have disproportionately affected young African-American males in particular. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is an opportunity to change course toward fairer sentencing for all Wisconsinites.

It is important to dedicate resources to keeping our streets safe. However, at an average cost of almost $30,000 per year for each federal prisoner, it is only wise to dedicate taxpayer money to those who most threaten the safety and well-being of our communities. By focusing only on the real threats, law enforcement officials can much better serve the communities they were elected to protect. That’s what more than 130 law enforcement officials told Congress in letters urging lawmakers to act.

Keeping our families strong and safe is a priority for Wisconsin voters. As a husband and father, I expect our members of Congress and the Senate to recognize that the most effective way to keep our communities safe is to allow law enforcement officials to focus on violent offenders. It is time for our federal representatives to join the bipartisan coalition in Washington and support the Sentencing Reform Corrections Act.

David Mahoney is sheriff of Dane County.

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