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Vos says extra unemployment pay contributing to crime increase

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Breon Sullivan cutting hair at Regent Cuts in Madison.

MADISON (WKOW) -- For Breon Sullivan, escaping the cycle of violence is an accomplishment.

The Gary, Indiana native says he witnessed violent crime growing up and is proud to now be a father in Madison, where he splits much of his time between jobs as a barber and personal trainer.

As crime increased last year in Madison, and many other American cities, Sullivan said he believed the key to reaching young men on the verge of violence was finding people who can connect with them.

"If I feel that you understand where I'm coming from and we're all on the same page, then maybe I'll take heed to what you're saying," Sullivan said.

The White House on Wednesday released its plan to prevent a violent summer; it outlined an effort to stop people from illegally getting guns, invest in community-based policing, and support summer activity and employment programs.

Wisconsin's top Republican lawmaker said ending the additional $300 per week in federal unemployment benefits would also reduce crime.

"That is a disincentive to work. It also means people get into mischief," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester).

In an interview with 27 News, Vos said he was also troubled by activists and some elected officials in the state's largest cities pushing to take funding away from their police departments.

"We certainly know that the idea of defunding the police should be something that no one supports but unfortunately, in places like Madison and Milwaukee, it's gotten some traction," Vos said.

The Assembly on Tuesday followed the Senate and passed a bill reducing state funding to cities who cut their police budgets. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is expected to veto the bill.

Madison reduced its police force by four positions in the 2021 budget but its overall police spending still rose due to pay raises.

Crime trends

In Madison, homicides increased from four to 10 between 2019 and 2020, according to police department records. The city recorded five homicides in 2018 after reporting 11 in 2017.

Madison Police group both gun and knife incidents together as 'weapon law violations;' those followed a similar pattern as murders, going from 192 in 2017 to 147 in 2018 and 155 in 2019 before sharply increasing to 191 last year.

One crime that has experienced a constant increase over that time is car thefts, going from 443 to 743 between 2017 and 2020 with increases each year along the way.

At Regent Cuts, where Sullivan works, Charles Graham acknowledged the increase while settling up at the register but said he believed any solutions have to go beyond policing.

"I do agree things have picked up since the pandemic but I just don't agree with the hardline Republican view of just more police and more stringent policing," Graham said.

Pushing programs

Sullivan said he wanted greater investments in education as a means of crime prevention. He added gun safety lessons for young teens would also have value since the idea of stricter U.S. gun ownership laws "causes anxiety."

"Everybody likes to have their guns; it's kind of what America is brought up with so let's educate everybody how to properly use them," Sullivan said. "Then we can see who should have them."

Sullivan said he also wanted broader education and skills training initiatives in high-crime neighborhoods.

"If you teach them how to use things and use numbers, then that's what's gonna get to them," Sullivan said. "Especially if you catch them early enough."

When asked what he considers the value of addressing root causes of poverty and violence, Vos said he believed the solution was getting more people to work.

"The very best social program is a job because if you're able to support yourself, your family, your children, it gives you a sense of dignity, gives you a sense of purpose," Vos said. "And it allows you to make your own decisions on what to do."

As for whether he felt the state should have put more of its $4.4 billion boost in expected tax revenue into jobs programs or into shared revenue for cities to create their own skills initiatives, Vos said he believed local governments were already getting enough in federal aid - a constant theme of this year's budget debate.

"Especially now, we see huge amounts of money that are coming from Washington D.C.," Vos said. "It is crazy for us to add to that pile."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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