As the seat of state government, site of a Big Ten university and home to a citizenry hot for the next debate, Madison has always been a mecca for meetings.

But it's never seen one quite like this.

At this meeting, the city's worst five to 10 criminals — each a chronic repeat violent offender — will be forced to show up in one room at one time to be told that, for them, the revolving door of "crime-conviction-release-repeat" is closed for good.

The tentative site is the United Way headquarters in November. On hand will be a small army of law enforcement, criminal justice and social service types. The families of the criminals "notified" (that's the verb police use) will be encouraged to attend with them.

What will they hear?

You are henceforth under a microscope from which you cannot escape. You must stop breaking laws now, with or without the personalized job counseling and other social program help we are here to offer. If you commit another serious crime, we will single you out and punish you with the focused and concerted might of the entire criminal justice system. You have become our top priority.

Last summer,"> Madison Police Chief Noble Wray and I talked about this planned approach — called "focused deterrence" in police parlance — for a column about gang and drug activity in the city. In the nearly one year since, Wray has gotten funding from the city and created a unit led by Lt. Tom Woodmansee and staffed by three newly named detectives.

Last Friday, in one in a series of talks prior to launching the effort, Woodmansee briefed the Dane County Criminal Justice Group, a gathering of law enforcement, court and social service experts. Among the members attending were Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Circuit Judge Bill Foust.

Madison's initiative is patterned after a successful High Point, N.C., program derided at first as "hug-a-thug" but which over time dramatically reduced recidivism. The local justice committee, over lunch in a basement meeting room at the county courthouse, saw a film about the North Carolina program in which criminals are told their only alternatives to shaping up are "a coffin or prison."

In an interview with Wray last week, I suggested that some will question this intensive carrot-and-stick approach. Haven't these guys been bad enough for long enough to just skip the carrot and go right to the stick?

Wray smiled at me across the table in his City-County Building office. Not a new question, I inferred. "When we gave this presentation to the district attorney and a judge, we showed them two samples of actual repeat offenders who would qualify for this initiative," Wray says. "And they were shocked. They were saying, ‘Why are they out (of prison)?' Yeah, that's the question. That's not pointing the finger. It's just that we have no way of really focusing in on people that need to be focused in on," Wray says.

What these really bad criminals have avoided, he says, is the coordinated focus of the criminal justice system. Now violent and chronic offenders will be an unprecedented target: they will either receive help finding work or solving a personal problem, or, alternatively, receive severe and certain punishment. This is so important, Wray says, because a small group commits a disproportionate share of violent crimes.

At their initial "notification" meeting, criminals will face a shoulder-to-shoulder display of multidepartmental law enforcement might to underscore that message. "If you decide to go in this (lawbreaking) direction," Wray says they'll be told, "the criminal justice system is going to come down on you and they are going to come down on you hard."

Might some bad guys just leave town? "I could see that," Wray says. "You would prefer to solve the problem, but you could see some displacement as an outcome."

Wray says Woodmansee's "special investigations unit" is timely for Madison because the city faces ever more urban criminal justice challenges. "One of the things it means is you end up with these repeat career criminals," Wray says, but currently "we are treating all of our criminals the same way."

"We are pretty excited about where this could go. When you compare the size of Madison and the type of crime that we have, we think a unit like this will render some really positive results immediately."

Madison's homicide rate is low, Wray says, but there has been an increase in batteries, home invasions and robberies, often drug-related. The chief says his officers often see lawbreakers they've arrested back on the street and breaking laws again. "The officers are frustrated," he says. "You get someone who is arrested several times and we know this isn't working."

The new program seems to leave few government agencies untapped. Woodmansee lists 13 players, including the district attorney, the U.S. attorney, the FBI, and state Division of Criminal Investigation. Even the Internal Revenue Service is listed. The police hope the first group of between five and 10 criminals will be expanded when more detectives are added to the unit.

So how does a criminal qualify for the inaugural group?

You start by using data to identify the most chronic repeat violent offenders, Wray says. Then you move to other factors, such as how much impact the offenders' actions have had on the community and how criminally active they have been in the recent past. "You could get someone that may have a long criminal history, but they may not be active."

While chronic offenders do terrible things, Wray says, they are actually quite rational. "There's a cost-benefit analysis that they are doing. They know if they do X, Y and Z that they will get a little time and it's just a revolving door. So how do we focus in on who is really having an impact and how do we break that cycle?"

In the end, observes the chief, many chronic violent offenders may shape up with the help of the enhanced social services. But if they refuse and break the law again, the hammer of focused prosecution will also result in a good outcome for Madison.

Says Wray, "There are certain people we need to throw the book at because they aren't going to get it." 

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