YWCA Madison

Escalating the Conversation

Escalating the Conversation

The Open Letter penned by the Young Gifted and Black Coalition and the response from Chief Koval have recently escalated the conversation about racial disparities and the relationship between police and the Black community in Madison. We recognize this moment of tension as a critical moment: as a community, this is when we sometimes check out or give up. However, if we stay in the struggle together, this can be the very moment for growth and change. The YWCA Madison is calling on the community, including ourselves, to stay in this struggle together.
To that end, we hope that some of the important points raised will not be lost. The Young Gifted and Black letter shone a light on some critical, local issues that must be addressed. We hope that as a community we can think about, and work on the following:

The Coalition’s letter addressed crimes of poverty—a key to the racial inequities in the criminal justice system. Their letter points out that 45 percent of people who are incarcerated are in jail because they have unpaid fines or fees of $1,000 or less. They also note that these people cannot be considered a public safety risk, because those who can pay the fines are not incarcerated. These realities affect many of the families we serve in our housing and employment programs at the YWCA. And the consequences can go beyond jail time to include loss of housing, employment, drivers’ licenses, and family ties. Someone who is incarcerated because of an unpaid fine can, for example, lose employment due to absence while in jail, increasing poverty and resulting in further harm to the individual, family, and community. As Chief Koval stated in his blog, “when poor people are saddled with insurmountable fees that they are incapable of paying, licenses are suspended, warrants are issued, our jails become 'debtor's' prisons and the pursuit of job and educational options become more limiting if you can't lawfully drive to participate!” The YWCA strongly supports any analysis and policy measures that would disallow modern-day debtor’s prisons where people are incarcerated because of their lack of ability to pay fines. This structure is not good for the people, it is not good for the system, and in the end it actually leads to greater vulnerability and decreased safety.

The Coalition also requested that police reduce their presence in neighborhoods where predominantly people of color and/or poor people live—an approach that has shown success in other communities. They are asking that Madison Police Department (MPD) police these neighborhoods as they do their counterpart neighborhoods. Additionally, they have requested significantly increasing voluntary referrals to community-led resources and programs when police contact is made, and of those arrested, refer as many people as possible to community-led alternatives to incarceration when there is not a public safety threat. It seems that the MPD is also willing to consider some of these approaches, and perhaps there is more common ground than it might appear.

The YWCA Madison also supports Chief Koval’s recommendations of expanding restorative justice models to community-based settings. Restorative Justice options would lead to decreased incarceration and a greater reliance on appropriate resources and community engagement. We, among many non-profit housing agencies, could not agree more with the point that the CCAP system is fatal to futures, and we would support any policy or legislation to implement a grace period in which some offenses can be wiped clean after a certain period of time.

Frankly, we are excited about the possibilities that are growing out of this sustained protest movement. These conversations are critical for our community. As Kaleem Caire recently stated, “I want to commend the Young Gifted & Black Coalition and Police Chief Koval for sharing the depth of their feelings and concerns with each other and the public….We shouldn't be upset with either one of them. Both shared the perspective of the voices they represent and both articulated their positions and concerns exceptionally well. THIS type of real and honest dialogue is what can lead to real change. Madison and Wisconsin are not the racial disparities capital and state of the U.S. without reason. Just maybe YBG and the Police Department will be able to lead us to achieve a level of progress and change that we have been unable to reach thus far.”

We encourage the Coalition, the MPD, and community residents to stay in this conversation, despite the discomfort, in order to find innovative solutions together. If we move forward on the recommendations that have already blossomed in this debate, we could transform our community. To quote the Coalition:  “we want to lead the way” in developing models that eliminate disparities. Finally, let’s not forget that people of color are suffering. The urgency, the “loudness” of the Young Gifted and Black coalition results from painful, daily experiences that we would all do well to hear, and honor.

Date Created: 1/14/2015

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