|Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
This story appears in the May 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine
by Jim Hazard
It was a dark timefor the Honorable M. Joseph Donald. “The valley,” he calls it. “The very bad time.”
Donald had served as a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge since 1996, but had become disenchanted with the criminal justice system. To him, the system has two primary duties: “To get the dangerous ones off the street and give a chance to those who will accept help.” But Donald wasn’t doing much of the latter. He was forced to throw so many into jail, even those he felt had a chance to be rehabilitated.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, there had been a crackdown on drug users, and the new approach had particularly dire results on African-Americans. By the 1990s, blacks were at least 50 times more likely than whites to do prison time for a drug offense, and it was mostly black males being sentenced. Wisconsin was the worst state in America when it came to the disparity between the black and white rates of imprisonment.
For Donald, an African-American, it was hard to bear. Allen Taylor, his longtime friend, recalls having a number of talks with Donald about having to send young men – especially young black men – into the “abyss” of prison. “If he sentenced them to prison, they were gone,” Taylor says. “It was a very bad time for him.”
“The system was just grinding up folks,” Donald believed. “At the end of my career, what do I want to look back at? Not a long line of lost souls.”
What rescued Donald was the creation of a special court, modeled on those in other cities. Working with the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office, public defenders and others, Donald helped create the Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court in early 2009 and served as its first judge.
The court uses a system of rewards and penalties to help drug users overcome their problems. Their progress is monitored, and if they fall back into their old habits, they may be thrown in jail over the weekend to help enforce the court’s expectations for them. It’s a system of tough love that mixes a humane recognition of each offender’s individuality with clear-cut rules. The court would revolutionize how Milwaukee handles drug offenders, with Donald leading the way.
Martin Joseph Donald grew up on Milwaukee’s near North Side on North Richards Street. He was a boy who paid attention to things – and one thing he noticed early on was that when people had trouble, they called the lawyer.
“I wanted to be like that. I wanted to live a helpful life,” he says. “Also, I liked that lawyers wore a shirt and tie and carried a briefcase.”
A family picture when Donald was just 7 years old shows that aspiration: He is the only one wearing a shirt and tie. As a judge today, he presides in shirt and tie, sometimes without judicial robes. And he irons his own shirts so he knows they’re done the way he likes them.
The judge’s foremost mentor was his mother, Dorothy. She not only told him there was a bigger world waiting for a boy like him – she introduced him to that world.
Dorothy was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Milwaukee’s most prominent families. Taylor, a retired partner at Foley and Lardner, remembers her as “a 14-karat character whose CB handle – you remember those citizen band radios – was Swinging Granny.”
When Dorothy went to work, she often brought her son along, widening her son’s world so that it included Lake Drive as well as Richards Street. Taylor liked the youngster.
“We sort of buddied around and I told him back then, ‘You can bring a lot to the party if you get a good education.’ Well, he certainly did that.”
Donald got some help with that from the family of Richard Cudahy, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. His son Rich, now a financial adviser at Robert W. Baird, became good friends with Donald. “Joe’s mother was our housekeeper,” he recalls, “but she and my mother were very good friends. So I’ve known Joe since we were 3 or 4 years old. He is my oldest and best friend in the world. I love him like a brother. And when I was in high school, my mother passed away, and Joe’s mother became my second mother.”
The relationship was so close that Dorothy Donald actually lived in the Cudahy family’s coach house in Shorewood. This allowed her son, who attended Harambee Community School in his early years, to attend Shorewood High School. From there, he went to Marquette University and then Marquette Law School.
“As long as I’ve known him, Joe has had this marvelous gift of temperament – more important in a judge than any other quality,” says Rich Cudahy, who knows something about that, given his father’s occupation. “He can see life through the eyes of people who are different from him and may not even like him. I watched him as a boy deal deftly with personal incidents of racism. He is able emotionally to rise above things that would grind down lesser people.”
Donald tends to underplay this.
“When I think back, moments come to mind,” he says, “like when I was 9 years old and playing touch football in Shorewood. This car pulled up and a guy yelled, ‘Go home, nigger – go back to your own side of town.’
“My mother told me these things would happen, and I had to learn to deal with it. Just move on. Not like kids do today, where even minor affronts escalate to life or death.
“Really,” he adds, “I think this stuff was harder on my white friends than it was on me.”
Another woman who was a key influence was his future wife, Ann McNulty. They met in college.
“We met at what they used to call a ‘mixer,’ ” Judge Donald recalls. “It had a Casablanca theme, and we started talking about art, and then we’d go for coffee...” His voice trails off into a smile. He shrugs pleasantly. “And it developed into one of those cases where you marry your best friend.”
“He’s the man my father prayed for,” Ann says of her husband.
“I wouldn’t have finished college without her,” he adds.
After graduating from Marquette University, Ann Donald worked for WTMJ-TV Channel 4 news and as a senior copywriter for the Zizzo Group. Today, she is a freelance writer.
The Donalds have three children. “I have a family joke with my kids that they are black-Irish,” the judge says. “It is a little more descriptive than ‘biracial.’
“We have two kids at UWM. Jordan, our oldest son, is studying architecture, and Hillary, our middle child, has a strong interest in anthropology. Ryan, our youngest, is a junior at Marquette University High School. My children are a tremendous source of joy and pride. As they age into adulthood, I’m finding them to be more insightful and entertaining. Just a lot of fun to hang out with.”
After getting his law degree, Joseph Donald went on to work for the Milwaukee city attorney, where he served for eight years, building his name in the legal community.
“I told Tommy Thompson, when he was considering Joe for the bench, that he would never regret this appointment – and Joe would never lose an election,” Taylor says. (Since his appointment in 1996, Donald has been elected three times, all unopposed.)
The father figure from Donald’s boyhood, Judge Cudahy, administered the oath of office when Donald was sworn in as judge. And Donald’s grade-school principal, Sister Callista Robinson, offered a benediction of sorts: “You are one of our own,” she said. “You have not forgotten where you come from and that community.”
Donald wanted to live up to Robinson’s praise, but after eight years as Circuit Court judge, he had begun to despair about whether he was truly making a difference. “It was difficult for him to bear the hopelessness of people and what he could and could not do for them,” says Cudahy. There had to be a better way, Donald felt.
In the early 1980s, when crack came on the scene, it brought more than just a new version of cocaine, cheap to manufacture and cheap to buy. It brought what many commentators proclaimed an epidemic and, gradually, a national crackdown on drug users. Crack in particular was targeted, on the theory it was leading to crimes in inner cities, while cocaine, the drug of choice in more well-to-do neighborhoods, was typically seen as a less of a scourge.
The result could be seen in state after state, as the imprisonment rate for drug users started rising for black defendants. In Wisconsin, as an analysis by UW-Madison sociology professor Pam Oliver found, the rate of imprisonment for drug offenses for African-Americans rose from 9 per 100,000 people in 1984 to nearly 257 by 1999. Meanwhile, the rate for white defendants had barely budged, rising from 2 per 100,000 people in 1984 to just 3 per 100,000 by 1999.
By then, Wisconsin had become ground zero for this problem, with the nation’s largest gap in the rate of imprisonment between blacks and whites.
To Donald, the lock-em-up mentality was too simplistic. “People don’t want to talk about the extent of this plague,” he says. “They want to lock addicts up and forget about it, but they don’t want to face the true extent of the problem.”
Nationally, there are some 23 million addicts, about as many people as have Type 2 diabetes. Wisconsin has about 310,000 known addicts. There are 16 states where drug overdose deaths outnumber deaths from auto accidents. It is a huge social problem.
It was Janet Reno, the future U.S. attorney general under President Bill Clinton, who led the way for a different approach to the problem. At the time, she was a state attorney in Dade County, Fla., (now Miami-Dade) with a reputation as a tough prosecutor. But, at the same time, she was known for establishing alternatives to prison for young nonviolent offenders. That balanced attitude was maintained as Reno, working with the chief judge and the public defender, helped create an effective program for court-monitored treatment of nonviolent offenders – the nation’s first drug court.
Soon there was a new national trend, a reaction to the last one, a way to correct the overreaction to the crack epidemic: Drug courts. Wisconsin’s first one was established in Dane County in the late 1990s. Since then, some 18 Wisconsin counties – including Sawyer, St. Croix, Trempealeau, Douglas, La Crosse and Eau Claire – have created drug courts, with others in the planning stage.
Milwaukee was far behind the trend. As Deputy District Attorney Jeff Altenburg, a very early supporter of the program, wryly notes, “We were a little late to the party.”
Milwaukee’s program was initiated, informally, by a team of like minds working in the system. They literally took matters into their own hands, meeting without an established local policy to guide them. They took on the “nuisance” cases, drug addicts or offenders with emotional and psychological problems who were regularly in trouble with the law but weren’t violent and posed no great threat to public safety. Case by case, all the concerned parties in the system began to work out a rational process of deferring charges or sentencing and agreeing on a course of treatment for these repeaters – felons who had pleaded guilty and agreed to participate in and be held accountable by the program.
This informal pilot program worked so well that the logical next step was to formalize the approach.
In February 2008, a planning team of key criminal justice and treatment system leaders attended the National Drug Court Planning Initiative Training in Portland, Ore. Among them were Judge Donald, Altenburg, Holly Szablewski (judicial review coordinator), and Robin Dorman of the public defender’s office. They spent a week studying the successes of existing drug courts – low dropout rate plus low recidivism rate equals success – and discussing how best to apply other courts’ successes to Milwaukee’s new court.
The basic concept was to charge a nonviolent drug offender with a felony, then present him or her with a program for rehabilitation. The “Drug Treatment Court Team,” made up of the DA’s office, the public defender, counselors and social workers, would design a program for each participant that included job training, psychological counseling, literacy training and family counseling – all designed to repair the damage drugs had done to the individual and his or her family. That team approach means the Drug Court operates outside the usual adversarial (prosecutor vs. defense attorney) system.
“People can be treated and brought back into the community with this program,” says Altenburg. “This is not just a catch-and-release program,” that simply imprisons them, he notes. “Prison time is a failure in every which way.”
For every dollar that is spent on a defendant in Drug Court, the taxpayer saves $3.60, since it is that expensive to keep an addict in prison. Nationally, recidivism rates for graduates of drug courts is 16 percent, contrasted with 46 percent for addicts who are imprisoned – meaning the taxpayers save by avoiding the initial imprisonment and save again when reimprisonment is avoided. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Altenburg.
Still, Donald was skeptical about the approach. “He wasn’t completely sold on the court at the start,” says Altenburg, “but he was willing to give it his best try because something had to be done.”
And so, on Feb. 16, 2009, the Milwaukee Drug Treatment Court began operations, with Judge M. Joseph Donald presiding.
The young man looks guilty. He failed his weekly drug test – positive for cocaine. Now he sits before Judge Donald, at the customary table for participants, alone and trying to explain himself.
“I didn’t use this week, Judge,” he says without making eye contact. “I was just helping this friend of mine wrap up some–”
“You what? You were just helping ... a friend?” Donald interjects. “You call this guy a friend? You should be saying, ‘What the hell are you doing with this stuff around me?’ ”
Donald isn’t really raising his voice, simply being very emphatic.
“Don’t you know it’s a crime to mess with that stuff, even be in the same room with it? You’re going to have to spend the weekend thinking about that over in the county jail, and Monday morning, we’re going to have a talk.”
The bailiff handcuffs the offender, and off he goes for a weekend with plenty of time to think behind bars. It’s a brisk reminder he is not just in a treatment program. He is a convicted felon, trying to get clean and stay out of prison.
“The question is,” Donald says later, “how often do you let them relapse? Relapse is part of the process. The process that has to come from within.”
The handbook for program participants makes it clear: “By choosing to enter this program, you are choosing to make a commitment to your recovery process.”
For those addicts lucky enough to be accepted into the program, this means a willingness to radically alter their behavior. Not just ending chemical dependence, but also accepting a new life based on the square old wisdom: Be on time, tell the truth, keep your word, show respect, stay away from bad company, get a job or keep the one you have. But for addicts, it can be deadly hard to handle staying off heroin, alcohol or cocaine, going to treatment meetings, and dealing with the leftover mental health, family, legal and work issues that dog a convicted felon.
Every Friday, in the jury room of Donald’s court, about a dozen or so professionals on the Drug Court Team meet to review each participant’s performance in the prior week. The review is a combination of banter, small talk and serious discussion.
The staff sits at the long wooden table in the jury room with the judge at the head. They consult files and consider each case: Did the defendants keep their end of the bargain? Did they have a clean drug test, look for work, meet with counselors, stay away from that guy who was getting them in trouble last week? If they did well, what reward is due? And if not, what sanction? They may decide to make participants wear ankle monitors or may remove such devices.
It’s Donald who asks the last question about each participant: “What do you think we should do about this one?” He may have the final judgment, but he relies on the frank opinions of his team.
“We’ve all got to check our egos at the door in this court,” Donald says. “The job here is transformation.”
Back in court, he is addressing a woman, a recovering heroin addict, who had a successful week, and now Donald wants her to know how important this week is to her and to him. He almost bounds from his bench to present her with a token that signifies she has been straight and sober for a month.
The coin looks like a Chuck E. Cheese token but has the St. Francis Prayer printed on it. It's not worth a nickel on the street, but when she stares at the token and closes her hand around it, you can see how important it is. Donald gives her a hug and says, “I’m really proud of you.” She’ll be back next Friday to report on another week, but she leaves with that coin and a month of success to build on.
“You have the tools to hold them accountable every step of the way and to help them change their behavior, all in one package,” says Altenburg. Then he pauses. “We love this program.”
Another case, however, goes the other way: It involves a young man so small and slight, he looks more like a boy. He looks guilty. He hasn’t been showing up for his job.
“This looks like you’re giving me a hose job here,” Donald says. “Lying that you’re going to work and there’s no record of it at all. What do you have to say for yourself?”
The young offender has very little to say, just a couple of contradictory excuses followed by silence. He knows what’s coming next.
The judge tells the bailiff to cuff him and take him off to county jail for the weekend and then bring him in Monday morning to watch Circuit Court proceedings and write a report on what he sees. The bailiff moves toward him, and the young man stands and crosses his hands behind his back without being asked to – sadly familiar with the drill, too well-adjusted to being in shackles.
There are inevitably failures in the program. “Yes, we have those,” Donald says wistfully. The offender’s initial guilty plea is always on file, waiting to incarcerate the ones who can’t see the program through. Some simply can’t lick the addiction. For others, the wrongheaded romance of prison is too appealing. Still others can’t give up crime – the edgy life of drug dealing, robbery – and settle into what Donald calls “the wonderful mundane aspects of life.”
Mercedes Pabon stands at the lectern, dressed up for her graduation from the program in a glamorous full-length gown. Her hair is elegantly done, highlighted in gold and hanging in tight ringlets. In her early 40s, she is small and fragile. She clenches a tissue in one hand, takes a breath, and begins her commencement remarks. “I am very proud of myself,” she says.
A former intravenous heroin addict, it was a terrible, lonely time for Pabon early on – almost a week of cold flashes, vomiting, muscle and bone pain, irregular heartbeat, deep depression, pure misery.
“I get this emergency call, ‘Judge, you’ve got to talk to her, she’s going to leave,’ ” Donald recalls. “Well, there’s not a lot you can do. She could walk if she wanted. And she wanted to. She was pleading and bawling and crying that there was no way she could go through this.”
But Donald wasn’t going to let her walk. “Sometimes, you look them in the eye and you have this faith in them, and you have to go with them no matter how tough it’s going to be.”
So he pulled rank on Pabon. “If you go, I’m going to have you arrested and locked up,” Donald told her. Her choice was stark: Get clean in a jail cell or get clean in a detox program. She stayed.
“From that point on, she was a different person,” Donald says. “Of all the people we’ve had in the program, I’m most impressed with her – with her courage. I don’t know what the future holds for her, but I really have newfound respect for her.
“It’s not always the ones who sail through the program with no trouble that you have the most commitment to,” he muses.
By the end of the program’s second year, there were 25 successful graduates. “I love to see the transformation in these people,” Donald says. “If we can get them to abstain for two years – then, we’re in a good spot to save that life.”
Says Altenburg: “Judge Donald has the perfect temperament for the job. He works so well with the whole team and with the participants. Much of the success of the program is because of him.”
Yet from the beginning, Donald made it clear he would not be making Drug Court his career. “I didn’t want the judge to be bigger than the program,” he says. Plus, he had learned something he thought he could bring to other courts. “This was a way we really can transform lives,” he says of Drug Court. “It seemed to me we should begin to replicate the experience with other judges – and other courts.”
The opportunity came sooner than he expected: In August 2010, about a year and a half after the Drug Court began, Judge Donald was transferred to Children’s Court.
Early morning at the Vel Phillips Juvenile Justice Center on Watertown Plank Road. As Judge Donald sits down behind the bench, the bailiff asks his clerk, “Is the judge ready?”
The clerk responds, “He was born ready.”
To the judge’s right sits a gumball machine. It’s a personal gift from his clerk. Often before getting started, Donald will ask, “Does somebody have a piece of gum? I’ve got to chew on something, or I’m going to say something I’ll regret.”
The judge does not take a gumball today, but it’s not an easy hearing, the case of a young man in custody on charges that involve gunplay. He looks to be about 15 or 16 and scared. There are three lawyers, along with tearful parents who want their boy released to them. The emotions are fierce, and Donald will have to set a trial date and decide about the boy’s custody, and then move on to the next case.
As he says often, the job here is to do good ... quietly. His attitude is: Everyone here is reasonable, even if they disagree. But what is best for the boy who is charged – and for the public’s safety? Donald decides the boy will stay in custody, and explains very carefully to the weeping parents that this really is for their son’s safety. He would not be safe on the street, or even in their house, right now.
Going down in the elevator, the boy’s mother is silent and tearful, her face to the wall. Her husband steps closer to her and says quietly, “Donald was fair.” After a pause, she nods. The judge was fair.
On the wall of Donald’s new chambers at Children’s Court, just next to the coat rack, hangs a framed memorial for Alvin Bradberry. Bradberry was one of the Drug Court’s first two graduates. A young man, only 29 years old, “one of my all-stars,” the judge calls him.
Bradberry had 22 charges against him ranging from operating under the influence to possession of narcotic drugs. His remarkable transformation by itself seemed to justify all the hopes for the drug treatment program.
At his graduation ceremony, Bradberry accepted his diploma and a framed inspirational poster – a photo of the sea, a limitless horizon, with a quote about making your own future. He then thanked the program for the fact that he would now “be there for my sons.”
After the ceremony, he reflected a bit. “I grew up with two sisters, and I always felt I had to be the one who looked out for them. With this program, I’m learning to look out for myself. I’m going to worry about taking care of my life.” He said he had passed his GED and was ready to enter MATC’s apprentice barber program.
Then, on the night before Easter 2010, Alvin Bradberry was shot and killed. His new life, barely two months old, ended.
The criminal complaint tells in deadpan, blood-chilling language the story of the last night of Bradberry’s life. According
to the complaint, Lathmer Torres, the man who lived with Bradberry’s sister Taka, is angry about a “snitch.” Taka tells him her brother is no snitch. (No doubt, being clean and sober, Bradberry would be a suspect.) At their apartment, Torres goes inside to load his pistol and then down to the parking lot where Bradberry is.
Bradberry is heard by Taka to say, “Put the gun away, we don’t need guns, we can fight, I don’t have a gun.” Taka then sees Torres turn toward the van and open the door, as if putting the gun away. As Bradberry takes off his jacket, getting ready to fight, Torres turns suddenly and fires. Bradberry falls. Torres stands over him and fires several more rounds.
The detective on the scene finds six bullets in “the pool of blood and body tissue under and near the body.” In the apartment, the police find two bags of cocaine, a Smith & Wesson pistol, and several rounds of full metal jacket ammunition. Torres is charged with first-degree intentional homicide.
“All this says to me: intervene earlier,” Donald says. “We have a bigger problem on our hands than even the drug plague. Domestic violence and the silence that so often surrounds it. The loss of compassion and self-esteem. We have a model in the Drug Court we can apply here. Treatment, not punishment, for those who are not dangerous to society. We have to develop some version of Family Treatment Court so we can save the kids and their families before the kids get caught up in the adult system.”
The judge is looking across his chambers as he talks, his eye on the framed memorial with Bradberry’s picture. He wasn’t just talking about Bradberry, but about the education of Joseph Donald, from Circuit Court to Drug Court to Children's Court – to perhaps some day creating a Family Treatment Court.
Donald is 51, still young enough to work on more change in Milwaukee, but the photo of Bradberry is a reminder to make use of the time still remaining.
“I put it where it’s the first thing I see,” Donald says. “I look at it every day. It was so disappointing to see the work you cherished destroyed. Alvin’s death has forced me to look at all this as a bigger issue.”