The race for Wisconsin attorney general is getting less attention than the gubernatorial race, particularly as the Democrats have a candidate other than Tom "Are you sure no one else wants to run?" Barrett this time.
To try and discredit Democratic attorney general candidate Susan Happ, conservative media outlets have been running with the message that she defended some bad people while she was a defense attorney.
Which is sort of the job of a defense attorney. To me, it is like running an attack ad against a chef that says: "This guy cooks food for a lot of people. Sometimes he prepares hundreds of dinners in a single night!"
While sounding silly, it makes tactical sense. Attacking Happ's defense attorney record plays up the old adage that Democrats are soft on crime and Republicans are tough on crime. It's the latest move in a 30-year war where the two parties push for tougher and tougher penalties in a game of incarceration brinkmanship. It plays on ideas that people who commit a crime are in some way different from the average population and that they all deserve to be locked away without argument.
That line of thinking has had consequences. Since 2011, Wisconsin has spent more on prisons than universities. Thirteen percent of our working-age black men are in prison, the highest rate in the nation.
In light of these shameful trends, Happ's experience as both a defense attorney and a county district attorney shouldn't be a hindrance -- it should be a point of pride. This state desperately needs an attorney general who understands that there is more to justice than jailing.
Defense attorneys almost always have a tough time running for office, which is a shame, because we need good defense attorneys to make our justice system run. Our adversarial system is set up so that even the person who looks the guiltiest has an advocate. Taking away a person's freedom is one of the greatest powers our government has. It is a truly awesome responsibility. A vigorous defense is how we maintain confidence that we aren't wrongfully convicting people.
And wrongful convictions do happen in Wisconsin. Joseph Frey was released in 2013 after his 1994 rape conviction in Winnebago County was overturned. Frey had been convicted on spotty eyewitness testimony, and Oshkosh police had destroyed important evidence before the trial. The Wisconsin Innocence Project, a project of the UW Law School, ran a DNA test that connected the crime to a different man, one with a record of sexual assault.
Now Frey has to put his life together after having almost two decades stolen away by the state. Frey's life wasn't the only one ruined by this conviction; the man who left his DNA at the scene later assaulted two more girls.
The original prosecutor in Frey's case, former Winnebago County Deputy District Attorney Vince Biskupic, had another case overturned when it was revealed he used testimony from an unreliable jailhouse witness and withheld important evidence from the defense. Biskupic later ran for Wisconsin attorney general on a tough-on-crime platform. Because when you say you are tough on crime, you never have to include the asterisk: *May occasionally jail innocent people.
Of course, Happ isn't arguing any of these points; she isn't stupid. She knows tough-on-crime is what the voters want.
"As the district attorney of Jefferson County, I've worked with Democrats and Republicans to prosecute offenders, protect our families and keep our communities safe." That's the first sentence on her website.
I'm glad that Happ would drop Wisconsin's inane defense of our gay marriage ban. I'm happy she doesn't like Act 10 and voter ID. On those issues alone, she comes across as light years better than Republican candidate Brad Schimel.
But it is 2014, and the liberal candidate for the office of the state's top cop can't even touch the idea of sentencing reform. That's our problem as voters -- we keep demanding to lock people up.
If Happ is elected, I want her to take substantive stances on issues beyond the usual range of hot buttons for middle-class white people. I want her to act based not on talking points but on the nuanced, pragmatic judgment she has used as both a prosecutor and as a defender.
I hope Susan Happ acts more like the Susan Happ in those conservative attack pieces.