News 8 Investigates: Crime and punishment

News 8 Investigates: Crime and...

LA CROSSE, Wis. - La Crosse County judges continue to be accused of being soft on crime.

It's been a concern of the La Crosse Police Department for at least the past five years and has generated some community discussion.

The Police Department questioned the sentences imposed on area drug dealers in two separate news releases published this summer.

In both releases, the department raises concerns about sentences imposed by La Crosse County judges.

In a case from June, Assistant Chief  Rob Abraham stated, "... It is time we start putting the concerns of our community's safety before the concerns of the offender." 

Here is some case history: Three months after serving his six-year prison sentence in 2012 for dealing cocaine and injuring an officer, Raymond Lewis was arrested on multiple drug and gun possession charges. 

This repeat arrest prompted Abraham to suggest Lewis should have been sentenced to more than six years saying, "… apparently that wasn't enough."

Wisconsin's top attorney says there are judges who give lighter sentences and judges who give tougher sentences.

“Every decision a judge makes takes risks,” Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said. “I guess unless you give everybody the maximum sentence, you're always taking a risk that they're going to rehabilitate -- that they're not going to commit more crimes in the future.”

The maximum prison time for the 2012 drug crimes Lewis committed was up to 40 years in prison. He also faced six years for substantial bodily harm to an officer totaling 46 years.

La Crosse County Judge Todd Bjerke sentenced Lewis in 2012 to the maximum of six years in prison and three years extended supervision for injuring the officer, and 15 years probation with a condition of one year in jail for the drug crime. 

Is seven years behind bars and 15 years probation weak or tough? News 8 Investigates wanted to find out.

We took Lewis' case and spent three months researching how to compare the data to similar sentences from across the state.

We pulled data from the year Lewis was arrested plus an additional three years. This is what we found.

Lewis pleaded guilty to the toughest drug charge in the Wisconsin court system. He was in possession with intent to deliver more than 40 grams of cocaine as a repeat drug offender. There were no other people sentenced with similar drug charges in La Crosse County between 2012 and 2015.

Comparatively, there were 41 similar charges across the state.

Where does Lewis stand when it comes to sentencing?

About 29 percent of those charges in the state received sentences ranging from less than one year to more than 10 years probation, similar to Lewis, while almost 71 percent received between one year and more than 10 years in prison.

But keep in mind, what we don't know are the unique circumstances considered at the time of sentencing  for each of these individual cases which factors into a judge's decision. 

Ultimately, what our investigation found is sentencing is never an apples to apples comparison.

“It is right to leave judges a wide range of flexibility because no cases are alike,” Schimel said. “There is no cookiecutter answer to how much time someone should get based on their record or based on how many drugs they were dealing. Any number of factors based on their own circumstances. Maybe they grew up in terrible circumstances. All that's a factor to take into account.”

So you be the judge. Was Lewis' sentence appropriate?

We shared the data with Bjerke, and both the chief and assistant chief of police in La Crosse.

Judges are not able to comment on specific court cases. However, Bjerke has not responded regarding the data we provided.

Abraham sat down with us to discuss the data.

He agrees individual court cases cannot be compared on an apples to apples basis because every case is different, but feels something needs to change.

“Our job is dangerous enough,” Abraham said. “When we've identified someone who's a bad person that shouldn't be on our streets, we would hope the criminal justice system beyond us would also realize that and keep our community safe -- keep our officers safe."

The last time the police chief and the judges got together publicly was in 2014 at the monthly "Criminal Justice Management Council" meeting. The frustration over the issue has not been resolved.

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