Our Wisconsin Revolution - Dane

Meet the candidates

Dane County Circuit Court

Marilyn Townsend

Why are you running? What are your top two policy objectives?

I am running for Circuit Court Judge because I care deeply about fairness and equal justice in our courts. My commitment is to put my skills, experience, and values to work every day, in order to be an impartial and thoughtful judge, help eliminate racial disparity, and improve access to the courts.

I have both judicial and legal experience. For my entire career – as a public interest attorney representing Unions and working people and handling civil rights and employment cases; and as a municipal court judge – I have focused on making sure everyone gets a fair shake.

My appreciation of the challenges people face started young.

I grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin. My maternal grandparents immigrated from Slovenia and my mother was a first-generation American. Both my parents grew up during the great depression. Neither of them finished high school. My parents taught all eight of their children the values of hard work, perseverance, and giving back to our communities.

As an attorney, I have handled a number of important cases. Recently, I won a unanimous decision in the Wisconsin Supreme Court Operton v. LIRC. Ms. Lela Operton had been fired by Walgreens and then denied unemployment benefits. The unanimous Supreme Court decision, which restored those benefits, will positively affect many workers around the State.

I represented Ms. Operton pro bono (for no fees). This case is a good example of the importance of access to the courts. For 25 years, I have been a volunteer attorney at the Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic. I also volunteer my time at the Veteran’s law clinic. Unlike in criminal cases where attorneys are appointed for those who cannot afford them, there is no such appointment process in civil cases such as housing, child custody, benefits, and employment. I support efforts by the State Bar, local bar associations, circuit courts, law schools, advocates and others to increase access to representation for people who cannot afford an attorney. As Legal Action says, “if you can’t afford a lawyer, you often can’t afford justice.”

As a Judge, I am a strong proponent of initiatives that help reduce racial disparity in our criminal justice system. Municipal Courts are on the front lines of our justice system. We see the root causes of crime, often at the beginning of a potentially negative trajectory. As a Municipal Court Judge, when appropriate, I offer defendants the opportunity to avoid a record, by postponing sentencing to allow them to receive drug and alcohol assessment and treatment, or by offering community service as an alternative to a conviction and a record.

As a Dane County judge, I will support and participate in countywide initiatives to reduce racial disparity. Lots of good work is underway and can be expanded: restorative justice courts, treatment and specialty courts such as Veterans Court, efforts to combat implicit bias, and a pilot program testing better ways to determine the amount of bail.

What qualifications and/or experience make you a strong candidate for elected office?

Currently, I serve as the Municipal Court Judge in Shorewood Hills, having been elected three times. For 38 years, I have practiced employment and civil rights law. That combination of legal and judicial experience uniquely qualifies me for Dane County Circuit Court.

I am the only candidate for judge who is a judge. I have overseen and decided more than 3,000 cases. I have issued written decisions, effectively and fairly managed a courtroom, presided over trials, and ruled on matters of law. My judicial experience is critically important and is most relevant to this position: the issues we face in our courts require collaborative, active, and knowledgeable Judges, who are willing and able to tackle tough issues, understand individual circumstances, and make our justice system more just.

As an attorney, I’ve stood up for the individuals against big corporations, I’ve defended workers, and I’ve been a tireless advocate to obtain justice for those who have been discriminated against. I have handled and won important cases, including at the Wisconsin Supreme Court. For 25 years, I have been a volunteer attorney at the Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic. I also volunteer my time at the Veteran’s law clinic.

I am the only candidate in this race whose campaign is voluntarily limiting campaign contributions. There is simply too much money in judicial races. And, according to a group of retired Judges as well as the League of Women Voters, large contributions ($1000 and over) should be cause for a circuit court judge taking herself off a case. The public should have confidence that justice is not for sale. Further, voters have a right to expect that the Judge they elect will be able to hear the cases that come before her, and should not ought to recuse herself. For those reasons, I have directed my campaign to limit contributions to $500.

As a judge, my judicial philosophy rests on three pillars:

• The principles that guide my actions as a Judge: A judge is an impartial and neutral decision maker who shows respect to everyone in the courtroom, who listens carefully, who knows the law, and who applies it fairly.

• The role of our courts in our democratic government – as a safeguard against overreach by the other branches of government – is also foundational in how I approach my work as a Judge.

• The power of our courts derives from the people’s trust and confidence in those courts. The public must know that justice is not for sale and that a judge's decisions are made without “fear or favor.”

How will you as a judge work to increase alternatives to incarceration?

As a Dane County Judge, just as I do as a Municipal Court Judge, I will continue to work with my colleagues, with elected officials, with advocates, with the faith community, with substance abuse and mental health professionals to make sure we continue to support and expand initiatives that help turn lives around, help reduce disparity, and help reduce recidivism.

Estimates are that up to 80 percent of inmates in jails have alcohol or other drug addictions. As a Municipal Court Judge, where appropriate, I offer defendants the opportunity to avoid a record by postponing sentencing to allow them to receive drug and alcohol assessment and treatment, or by offering community service as an alternative to a conviction.

On average, in the Dane County jail, 40 percent of the inmates have a diagnosable mental illness. Dane County should consider adding a Mental Health Court. Mental Health Courts, like other diversion courts, offer treatment and support that get at the root causes of crime and reduce recidivism.

We should expand restorative justice courts, treatment and specialty courts such as Veterans Court, and efforts to combat implicit bias. We should continue to improve data-gathering so that we can analyze, evaluate and identify what is working and what is not. And, I support a pilot program testing better ways to determine the amount of bail which you can read about here: http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/crime-and-courts/dane-county-board-to-test-assessment-to-keep-low-risk/article_18ae4e7b-41c1-53c4-bed6-29b1bbd319fe.html

One of the other important things I bring to this campaign is my deep involvement in the community. I’m a member of the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Committee, I volunteer at the Veterans Law Clinic, and the Unemployment Law Clinic. As a Circuit Judge, I’ll continue to be involved in the community because issues in terms of both disparity and expanding alternatives to incarceration are most effectively addressed if we work together, break down silos, and find ways to collaborate. Judges must be active and engaged members of the broader community.

If elected, how will you reduce racial disparities in the sentencing?

As a Judge, I currently utilize the options available to me – community service, alcohol and other drug counseling – in order to give individuals the opportunity to avoid a conviction and a record.

As a Circuit Court Judge, I will continue to use the options available including diversion and treatment courts that reduce incarceration and recidivism.

I will also support new initiatives. Dane County is currently engaged in efforts to review and improve pre-trial practices (https://isthmus.com/news/news/data-driven-criminal-justice-program/) and improve its data gathering: what you don’t measure you cannot change.

I will be an active participant in reviewing, adopting, evaluating, and enacting changes that will help reduce the disparity in the system. In this campaign, I am honored to have the endorsement of leaders in the charge to reduce racial disparities in Dane County including Dane County Supervisors Shelia Stubbs and Heidi Wegleitner.

“Racial disparities in imprisonment arise from a large number of different forces that vary greatly between places and over time. Local decision-makers have tremendous influence over policies about policing, arrests, charging, plea bargaining, sentencing, and community supervision. Public discussions about one issue (e.g. drug charge disparities) can lead local actors to change their policies, but other unnoticed policy changes may keep disparities high, or they may drop them. Second, you need to keep monitoring data over time to see what is the same and what has changed.” Pam Oliver Using Data to Understand Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice in Wisconsin and Milwaukee, October 2016.

Since Dr. Oliver wrote those words in October 2016, she and other experts have worked tirelessly to hold elected officials, the court system, and other institutions accountable in regard to making progress on reducing racial disparities throughout the court system. They have done so by publicizing research, encouraging policymakers to review and revise policies, and by engaging the broader Dane County community in a review and discussion of why things are how they are and how they could be different.

I understand what may bring people before a court, their right to a strong defense, the importance of integrity in prosecution, and the role of a judge.

Judges must have integrity and also humility. Our work is fundamentally in service to large and important principles at a time in America when many question the ability of institutions to serve all the people of this great nation. As a judge, I aspire to achieve equal justice under law; just as importantly, I recognize that there is work to do and changes that must be made in order to make equal justice a reality, not simply a promise.


Susan Crawford

Why are you running? What are your top two policy objectives?

I have a deep commitment to public service and I seek out tough challenges. I am running because I want to serve our community and improve the justice system in Dane County.

Dane County has been my home for over twenty years. My husband and I have two children, now 13 and 16, who attend Madison public schools. We love this community. At the same time, I am troubled by the deep racial and economic disparities in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our justice system. My children and their young friends are my inspiration to work for a better and more just future for Dane County.

My two highest priorities as a judge are to eliminate the racial disparities in our justice system and improve access to justice for all. I will do that by: (1) working hard every day in the courtroom to make sure each person before the court receives equal protection under the law, regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, or other characteristic; and (2) by working on systemic changes, innovations and reforms to ensure that all who walk through the courthouse doors have access to justice. While I understand that a single judge cannot solve these problems alone, I have the preparation, experience, values, and strong work ethic needed to drive change.

What qualifications and/or experience make you a strong candidate for elected office?

I’ve practiced law for 23 years and have gained broad experience. After earning a law degree from the University of Iowa, I began my legal career at the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in 1994. In 1997, I began working as an assistant attorney general at the Wis. Department of Justice and in 2000 was promoted to Director of Criminal Appeals. I handled hundreds of criminal cases in the Wisconsin courts, including several in the Wis. Supreme Court. I gained a deep knowledge of criminal law and empathy for crime victims, whom I met with often.

From 2003 to 2009, I served in a series of posts in the administration of Gov. Jim Doyle, including at the DNR and the Department of Corrections, gaining significant administrative experience. While working at the Department of Corrections, I visited many state prisons. I was struck by the racial disparities and high level of treatment needs in the prison population. My knowledge of the limited resources and extreme disparities of the prison system will influence my decision-making as a judge.

In 2009, I was appointed chief legal counsel in Governor Doyle's Office. My responsibilities included coordinating the defense of the domestic partnership law, which was attacked by opponents of marriage equality. I also served as chair of the Governor’s Pardon Advisory Board, where I heard from hundreds of citizens who sought the Governor’s pardon for a crime. Most had completed their sentences decades earlier, but still encountered obstacles in employment, housing, and educational opportunities. This experience brought home to me the lifelong consequences of a criminal record.

When Governor Doyle’s term ended in early 2011, I joined my current law firm, Pines Bach. Almost immediately, Act 10 was introduced, and I became very involved in the legal fight against it. I took the lead in drafting the legal challenge to Act 10 in the Dane Co. Circuit Court, which declared Act 10 unconstitutional (eventually overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a split decision).

In my seven years at Pines Bach, I've fought to protect the rights of citizens, particularly the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, in numerous cases. I won a ruling forcing state officials to turn over public records to Madison Teachers and defended the ruling in the Wis. Supreme Court in 2017. In 2016, I won a case in the Wis. Supreme Court prohibiting Governor Walker from usurping the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s constitutional authority. I've worked to protect voting rights in many cases and co-authored an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case challenging Wisconsin's gerrymandered districts. I've worked to protect women's reproductive rights with a team of lawyers from Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. I've assisted many employees, businesses, and families and have helped renewable energy developers with permitting. My broad legal experience, volunteer work, and passion for justice have prepared me to step up to the judiciary.

How will you as a judge work to increase alternatives to incarceration?

I would support and participate in treatment alternative and diversion programs such as the existing Drug Court, OWI Court, and Veteran's Court and pre-charging diversion programs such as Dane County's First Offender program. These programs now only avoid incarceration, but allow participants to avoid the lifelong consequences of a conviction. Drawing on my extensive administrative experience in working with multiple state agencies, I would collaborate with other stakeholders in the circuit court and the justice system to evaluate and develop programs to reach populations that may not be fully served by existing programs, such as a mental health treatment court and a homeless court. I also would support and encourage the referral of appropriate cases to restorative justice and peer courts that foster accountability outside the formal justice system.

Not all individuals qualify for or successfully complete diversion programs. In those cases, when an individual is convicted and brought before the court for sentencing, I would fully consider all possible sentencing alternatives and would impose a sentence of incarceration only when necessary to protect the public and/or the victim from harm. Judges have broad discretion at sentencing and many options for holding individuals accountable in the community through court-ordered conditions, such as participation in treatment, employment or education; restrictions such as electronic monitoring; and intensive supervision. I would fully utilize these alternatives to incarceration. I believe the courts need access to data on sentencing outcomes. Although I am wary of commercially produced risk assessments and would view such assessments with a critical eye, Courts should be paying closer attention to the growing evidence of what works to reduce recidivism. Across the country, the length of prison sentences has increased dramatically over the past twenty years, especially for Black men, with no evidence that these longer sentences are more effective in rehabilitating offenders or preventing recidivism (in fact, there is some evidence showing the opposite is true). I will advocate for and use such evidence as a judge.

I believe it is very important for judges to collaborate with other justice system participants on reforms and innovations to reduce incarceration while increasing public safety. The criminal justice system is complex, with many different stakeholders and decision-makers exercising authority at different points in the process. Many counties, including Dane, have collaborative teams to work on .problem-solving that no one agency or stakeholder can solve alone. I believe judges can and should participate in such collaborations and work on problem-solving in the justice system. I would welcome and seek out opportunities to do so.

If elected, how will you reduce racial disparities in the sentencing?

This issue must be attacked on multiple fronts. Awareness of the problem is a good start, but not a solution. I believe the vast majority of judges are well-intentioned and are not consciously biased, but this means we need to confront unconscious or implicit biases, which we all have. First, I believe judges should receive statewide data tracking sentencing outcomes, judge by judge, that bring disparities to light. Greater transparency is essential to confront the issue of disparities. I would push for access to and publication of such data, which I believe would assist judges to avoid the influence of unconscious biases in making sentencing decisions. Second, I strongly support training for judges on implicit bias and would participate in formal training on implicit bias, as well as continually educating myself on how to recognize and confront my unconscious biases.

In addition to these strategies to reduce racial disparities in sentencing, I believe we as a state simply are incarcerating too many people for too long. Judges have wide discretion in determining both whether to impose a jail or prison sentence, and the length of the sentence, in most cases. I would utilize alternatives to incarceration at sentencing in all cases in which I believed the individual could be held accountable, and that public safety would be sufficiently protected, without being incarcerated. Likewise, I would carefully consider and determine the sentence length in light of what was truly necessary to protect the public.