Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes is positioning himself as an advocate for law enforcement—yet he sits on a state criminal justice advisory board that is investigating ways to eliminate prisons and promote "alternatives to incarceration."
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s racial equity committee—which was appointed by Democratic governor Tony Evers and includes state judges and the Madison, Wis., police chief—agreed during a Zoom meeting on Thursday to study "alternatives to prison" and ideas for messaging this policy to the public.
The move flies against attempts by Evers and Barnes to distance themselves from radical criminal justice reform policies as they face competitive elections this year amid rising crime in the state. Barnes, the Wisconsin lieutenant governor and frontrunner in the Democratic Senate primary, recently denied that he backs the "Defund the Police" movement, despite accepting campaign support from some of its leaders.
It also comes as the public has pushed for tougher law enforcement measures, with 75 percent of Milwaukee residents calling crime a "serious" problem in the city and 60 percent backing an increase in police funding in a poll last month.
Milwaukee County circuit judge Carl Ashley, a member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said during the Zoom meeting that jails were "an important option" but the council should look for "better ways for us to hold people responsible for their behavior."
"It’s trying to get messaging out," Ashley said. "Messaging that this is not soft on crime, this is not trying to reduce public safety but rather to increase public safety."
Ashley also noted that the deadly attack on a Christmas parade in Waukesha has made reform policies unpopular and could "turn the clock back" on criminal justice reform. Repeat-felon Darrell Brooks was out on $1,000 bail in November when he bulldozed his car through a crowd of parade-goers, killing six.
"Certainly the Waukesha incident, nobody’s happy with that," Ashley said. "Everybody’s torn up about it, we all are. But the fact of the matter is that is going to push us back."
The council's plan would "encompass both educating ourselves and messaging going forward" about alternatives to locking up criminals, said Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Rebecca Dallet.
Dallet asked for "buy-in" from the rest of the council, saying that anyone who opposed the idea should speak up. There were no objections, including from Mandela Barnes, who was on the Zoom meeting but had his camera turned off throughout.
A spokeswoman for Barnes told the Washington Free Beacon in February that the lieutenant governor "does not support defunding the police" and favors "ensuring law enforcement agencies have the resources they need to keep us safe."
Dallet named the project "Alternatives to Incarceration," but Ashley recommended changing it to "Effective Justice Strategies."
"I like that a lot better," Dallet said. "See, a lot of this stuff is language and messaging."
The council agreed to brainstorm other ideas for the name during the next meeting in June.
Barnes is the frontrunner in the Democratic Senate primary. If he wins, he will run against incumbent senator Ron Johnson (R.) in what is expected to be one of the most competitive races of the midterm elections. Evers will face the winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary, a field that includes former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch and former Marine Kevin Nicholson.