State Public Defender Kelli Thompson on incarceration cycles

Wisconsin State Public Defender Kelli Thompson discusses staffing for attorneys representing clients charged with crimes and the justice system impacting local communities when people are imprisoned.

By Nathan Denzin | Here & Now

January 18, 2023

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Kelli Thompson:
So if we have, we're never overstaffed, but if we have a tiny bit over here but we could really use it over here, we do it. Everybody in our office is multi-talented. So it's me picking up the phone trying to find a private attorney to take a conflict case. I mean, it's answering the phones when anybody has five extra minutes. The wonderful thing about our office is you have peers throughout the entire state to talk to even if it's 3:00 in the morning, which we're hoping people take a break at 3:00 in the morning, but it is having that. It's using people to bounce ideas off of and it's that constant reminder to the public. These are real people. We like to define them by different words, but these are human beings. Some of them, again, have made a mistake. I have often said, "I don't know if I could live in many of my clients' lives and survive." They're survivors. And we have to provide opportunities for them. We can't just continue the cycle of incarceration. We're losing. Our state is losing. We don't have individuals in jobs because they're sitting in cages. We need to work with our workforce to continually expand opportunities for them. We need to give them educational opportunities. We need to provide the support structures in the community. They need those support structures so that they can, that they can not just succeed, but they can thrive and they can be back there with their families. People talk about public safety, public safety, public safety. When we put one person in jail, even pre-trial for 48 hours, we've destabilized their lives. When we destabilize their lives we destabilize their families. When we destabilize our families, we've destabilized our communities. We're not increasing public safety. We're decreasing public safety and we have to look at this broader. Everybody has to come to the table and say, we have to use research and evidence. So many fields we're so comfortable using research and evidence. If it's healthcare, we look at the data. If it's the insurance industry, we look at the data. We have lots of data in the criminal justice system and we tend to rather go down the emotion and anecdote, rather than the data and the research. And that's so critically important because, again, I'm coming back to these are real people. These are human beings. Oftentimes, I mean, you put aside what they've been charged with or convicted with. I mean, they're wonderful human beings and we have to give them opportunities.

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