Law In Action Profile

Smart on Crime: Revitalizing Milwaukee’s Troubled Neighborhoods

Christopher Ladwig, Benjamin Wesson

"Ben and Chris put Law in Action and the Wisconsin Idea into practice every
single day. By working smartly within the Criminal Justice environment,
their work provides a unified vision of public safety that is deeply
intersected with agencies and connected to the community."
John Chisholm '94, Milwaukee County District Attorney 

Christopher Ladwig ’07, Benjamin Wesson ‘06

Although district attorneys are traditionally depicted prosecuting in court, two Milwaukee Assistant DAs, Christopher Ladwig ’07 and Benjamin Wesson ’06, are more likely to be found working in neighborhoods alongside community members, organizations, and other stakeholders to revitalize communities and proactively prevent crime. These recent UW Law School graduates are using their law degrees to solve complex problems in Milwaukee’s most troubled neighborhoods.

As members of the city’s Community Prosecution Unit (CPU), Chris and Ben aren’t tucked away in court. Instead, their offices are located right in the community, where they interact with residents, alders, and partner agencies on a daily basis. Together with the community, they identify issues and develop long-term strategies to address root problems.

Community prosecutors are uniquely positioned within the criminal justice system to understand neighborhoods and the people who are committing crimes within them. This awareness informs strategic choices and the allocation of limited resources. Chris explains, “We cannot arrest our way out of all problems. We have to be smart on crime by focusing police and prosecution resources on violent offenders. We are in a better position to evaluate whether we are more effective in keeping our communities safe by changing a person's behavior through a diverted prosecution such as a treatment and education program or through traditional prosecution and prison.”

As prosecutors, Chris and Ben have unique leverage and an extensive toolbox to develop solutions; among their tools are traditional prosecution, organizing teams comprised of different government agencies, working with neighborhoods and community organizations, and developing deferred prosecution programming. "At first glance, discretionary decision-making in the public service arena would seem to foster arbitrary and unjust results,” explains Ben Wesson. “The prosecutor, however, is required to use the position's immense discretionary powers to promote justice for all stakeholders. We aggressively prosecute individual criminal offenders who cause the greatest harm to communities while working with a broad coalition of stakeholders to develop long-term solutions to neighborhood problems."

For example, one district was impacted by ongoing problems with prostitution and crimes associated with prostitution. In partnership with community organizations and the Milwaukee Police Department, CPU worked to abate prostitution activity through an effort called “Operation Red Light.”

A traditional response to prostitution consists of a short-term police patrol and arrest sweeps – measures that have only a temporary impact while the police are present. By contrast, CPU’s multi-pronged approach included arrest and prosecution, outreach with the local organization Benedict Center, community leadership, and consistent patrolling in high-risk areas. The collaboration was most effective when women were redirected into “positive programming,” or training in areas such as alcohol and drugs, job search aid, parenting and self-esteem. This unique approach has seen success in reducing street-level prostitution in some of Milwaukee’s most historically embattled corridors.

In this operation, and others, Milwaukee communities are being revitalized through uniquely proactive problem-solving. Explains Deputy District Attorney, Jeffrey J. Altenburg ‘91, “Community Prosecution in Milwaukee is focused on allowing trained and experienced assistant district attorneys to get out from behind a desk and away from the traditional role of simply reacting to what the police present, so that they can instead work directly in neighborhoods to collaboratively solve problems with the police, government, and community-based partners before they rise to a level of criminal activity.”

Read more in An Interview with Christopher Ladwig ‘07 and Benjamin Wesson ’06

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