Tom Nelson Discusses Attorney General Candidacy

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Tom Nelson Discusses Attorney General Candidacy

Premiere Date: 
August 8, 2014

Nelson, the Libertarian Party candidate, outlines his vision for the office.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Third-party candidates are not known for their deep campaign war chests. That's why you won't see many of them advertising on television. Over the coming weeks we'll introduce you to third-party and independent candidates running for statewide offices. It's called for our Candidates segment. Tonight, we talk with the Libertarian on the ballet, running for state attorney general. Tom Nelson is a Madison-based attorney. Mr. Nelson, thanks very much for being here.

Tom Nelson:

Well, thank you very much for inviting me, Frederica. I've been looking forward to this.

Frederica Freyberg:

Good. First, we want to ask you why you want to be attorney general.

Tom Nelson:

Well, I'll tell you that, and the answers will be mainly numeric. There are some terrible problems in the corrections system in this state, and they're within the Department of Corrections and I would like to get to work to fix some of them. The state of Wisconsin has 107% the population of the state of Minnesota, slightly more, about 1/14th more, and yet our number of prison inmates is 2.3 times as great. We have 230% the number of people in prison in our state prison systems. And I'm talking about the state prison system here. We also have 72 county jails, and those people are in and out and sometimes they're being held and they're not. They haven't been to trial yet and they haven't been convicted. So I'm only talking about state prisons where we send our felons. The Department of Corrections budget in Wisconsin is 240% of what it is in Minnesota. We spend $1.2 billion, the Minnesotans spend $481,000. We even spend a little more per candidate-- Excuse me, per inmate. I've got candidate on my mind. We spend 105% as much on each individual inmate.

Frederica Freyberg:

You think we're prosecuting too many people and putting too many people in prison?

Tom Nelson:

I'm not as clear, and this is after more than a score of years of doing criminal defense work, it's not as clear that we're prosecuting too many, but putting way too many people into prison and for too long a period of time. This is a terrible waste of money, and a horrific waste of humanity.

Frederica Freyberg:

What would you do about that as attorney general?

Tom Nelson:

As attorney general I would-- Well, first I want to look at the problem and I want to show everybody what the problem is, because I've got a picture of it here and I brought it to show. So this is my show and tell. There is the problem. And the solution is to reduce that smothering, stifling, excessive government. We have people in prison far too many inner city kids who got caught with a bag of marijuana. We have people who got in the familiar habit of having a little smoke now and then and then sold some, and instantly they're felons. And you know they're felons like the rest of their lives. It's like the Scarlet Letter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, where the poor woman had the A branded on her forehead because of an indiscretion. It doesn’t go away. Today we don't brand people, but we accomplish the same result with the internet. There's this website called CCAP, C-C-A-P. You can look on there, get everybody's misdeeds all the way back to the beginning of adulthood, which is 17 in Wisconsin. It's 18 in most states. Everybody looks at it, employers look at it, landlords look at it. These people are marked for life. One big beef here is we create way too many felons.

Frederica Freyberg:

So as attorney general, would you regard yourself as you would be soft on crime?

Tom Nelson:

I would certainly not be soft on crime, being soft on crime makes the streets dangerous. But the streets are no more dangerous today in Wisconsin than they are in Minnesota. In fact, both of these states have enviably low crime rates. The problem is we're getting to that result by the wrong way. We're over prosecuting minor crimes. I had a client once who got drunk, climbed into his car and fell asleep. As a result of that he went to prison for five years as a felon drunk driver. You know you don't have to be drunk or drive to be convicted of drunk driving. That's the kind of thing I would clean up. My basic thrust would be, make the system more rational, try to bring some common sense, instead of all the technical law and this hunting dog mentality that prosecutors have to prosecute everyone to the maximum extent, get the most severe convictions, create as many felons as possible though adjudication and then get them the long prison sentence. There should be some judgment and some moderation in this. Keep the dangerous people off the streets. Out of the 22,462 people out of 5-1/2 million of them in the state who are in the state prisons, a small part of them are really violent, and they have to stay there.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, you come to this position with your experience as a criminal defense lawyer, and that-- I mean, this position of attorney general is the state's so-called top cop. Kind of hard to balance these things then?

Tom Nelson:

You don't balance them as though they were quantitatively different because they're different in kind. And the attorney general's not the top cop, he is the senior partner of the law firm that advises the executive branch of government. I heard Susan Happ say the attorney general is the public's lawyer. No, he isn't. She doesn’t understand the structure of government. The attorney general is the executive branch's lawyer. His boss is the governor. The governor asks him for advice. And when you're going to take a position on a law, one that's passed and being tested or one that's up in front of the legislature, you don't go ask the attorney general what his position is on it, because he calls the governor and he says, Mr. Governor, what's our position on this, the governor tells him and he goes to work.

Frederica Freyberg:

We need to leave it there. Tom Nelson--

Tom Nelson:

Already?

Frederica Freyberg:

Thanks very much.

Tom Nelson:

Thank you very much for asking me to come. 


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