Nathan J. Comp
Madison Police Department spokesperson Joel DeSpain (standing) and Chief Noble Wray (seated) speak to repeat offenders at a crime prevention intervention.
Ten area criminals arrived at the United Way office on Atwood Avenue to hear the unequivocal message from local, state and federal authorities that, if they break the law again, they'll see to it that justice shows no mercy.
The offenders had between them a combined 413 charged criminal offenses, including 96 felony convictions. Their crimes ranged from homicide and armed robberies to substantial batteries and multiple sex assaults against children.
"You have been brought here today because you have a history of violent crimes," Madison police chief Noble Wray told the group Tuesday night. "Consider yourselves under a microscope."
The meeting, known as a notification, is part of an emerging anti-crime strategy called focused deterrence, in which a city's most serious offenders receive not only special attention from law enforcement, but also the opportunity to turn their lives around.
Wray expects to hold quarterly notifications, each targeting a different offender group.
More than 30 police departments nationwide have used focused deterrence strategies to great effect in reducing violent crime. The critical factor, experts say, is the offender's certainty of being caught committing new crimes.
The notifications quite literally put offenders on notice that law enforcement will be paying extra special attention to them and their activities.
According to Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain, those in this first offender group were selected after narrowing a list containing hundreds of candidates.
"The broad list was developed based on criminal histories of each offender, with emphasis placed on those repeat offenders who had committed the most violent crimes," he says.
Some critics have derisively dubbed the approach as "hug-a-thug."
But no hugs were given out Tuesday night.
The meeting began with community leaders from an array of agencies offering help to offenders in need of work, housing, transportation, drug and alcohol counseling, spiritual guidance or their GEDs.
The public safety officials were not as endearing. One by one, each authority explained how his or her agency could assist in sending them back to prison. Wray said the Madison Police Department has created a special investigative unit just to keep an eye on them.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, whose jail all of them have passed through, implored them to "look inside and see this as an opportunity to change."
Gary Jackson of the DEA promised to use his agency's vast resources against those who violate America's drug laws, which come with long sentences. "As you know, federal time is hard time," he said.
U.S. Marshal Dallas Neville warned that if offenders flee that he would find them. He cited his office's recent involvement in apprehending a local murder suspect in Georgia.
Even the IRS had a criminal investigator on hand to tell of the consequences of violating tax laws. Whether it's in a bank account, tied up in assets or buried in their backyards, Kelly Jackson, who heads the IRS's criminal investigations division, warned that she'll find their illegally earned money. "Part of being a law abiding citizen is being right with the taxman," she said.
Christopher Cole, supervisory agent for Madison's FBI office, explained some of the surveillance techniques his office can deploy. "We know who you are, we're watching and, in some cases, we're listening," he said, adding that his job isn't to help them, but to hold them accountable.
Following a short video illustrating the choices the offenders now faced -- prison, death or virtue -- Madison police officer Rodney Wilson told the group that Crime Stoppers has "increased cash rewards for tips that lead to your arrest if you commit a crime."
Lastly, the prosecutors spoke.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne applauded the offenders for coming, even though they were required to attend. "It's the first step to change," he said. "It's ironic that by becoming some of the worst, you now have the opportunity to be the best."
He said asking for help is one of the hardest things they'll ever do. "But in doing so you will realize the joy of life."
John Vaudreuil, U.S. Attorney for Wisconsin's western district, seemed astounded by the group's 96 felony convictions. "That's 96 times you said to the judge, 'I'm sorry. I promise I won't do it again.'"
He then gave them a crash course in federal sentencing guidelines, warning that, for most of them, possessing just a single bullet could land them in prison for a minimum of 15 years. "With your records, I can tell you you'll do more than 15."
Wray wrapped things up by encouraging the men to speak with the community members after the meeting. "Gentlemen," he said, "good luck."
All but two stuck around. Though they weren't required to stay, their abrupt departure has prompted some additional attention.
"Tomorrow we'll contact them and reinforce the expectations," Wray said.