Live Saturday in Milwaukee: What we can learn about childhood trauma and incarceration from Marlin Dixon

·6 min read

Editor's note: The in-person portion of this event is now sold out but you can still join us virtually here.

A series of stories last month on childhood trauma and youth incarceration focusing on a young man involved in a beating death as a teenager continues to reverberate through the community.

In the series, I described how 14-year-old Marlin Dixon was among a group of young people who attacked and killed Charlie Young Jr. The attack took place after Dixon intervened in an altercation between Young and Dixon’s 13-year-old friend, who had pelted the man with an egg.

Dixon acted because he was angry, he recalled. But years later, it became apparent that a long history of traumatic experiences was underpinning that anger. Dixon spent 18 years behind bars for the crime and still has 22 years of extended supervision. He was released from prison in 2020.

More: At age 15, Marlin Dixon went to prison for a killing that appalled the nation. Now free, he's determined to prove his life has value.

To dig deeper into ongoing concerns over childhood trauma and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color in Milwaukee, the Journal Sentinel is hosting a community dialogue on Saturday. Our goal: to talk to local and state leaders about how to ensure that young people receive the help they need.

This program is made possible by generous support of Wellpoint Care Network and the O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University. It's also sponsored by Listen MKE, a partnership between the Ideas Lab at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; WUWM 89.7-FM, Milwaukee's NPR; Milwaukee PBS; and the Milwaukee Public Library.

This event is free and lunch will be served.

Getting at why kids kill

Tessa Duvall is an investigative/enterprise reporter for The Courier Journal.
Tessa Duvall is an investigative/enterprise reporter for The Courier Journal.

The keynote speaker will be Tessa Duvall, an investigative reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal specializing in policing, criminal justice, and children’s issues. Duvall is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Peabody winner.

For her 2018 reporting project, “When Kids Kill,” for the Florida Times-Union, Duvall spent 20 months examining the Florida counties with the highest rate of kids arrested for murder and manslaughter. She wanted to know why, so she reached out to the young people behind bars to ask.

She found a common theme: trauma. And not the result of just one incident. The kids often were under constant stress in their homes, their neighborhoods, or sometimes their schools.

One person, Marcus Wilson, received a 20-year sentence when he was only 17.

He told Duvall, “My mother took drugs over her kids, and with men, she was easily manipulated and persuaded to do things. My mother would always, always take her frustration out on us.”

Family dysfunction was a constant theme, with trauma from bad parenting passed down from one generation to the next.

Duvall’s reporting showed the costs of housing kids who commit murder.

It cost $20,000 to house an inmate for a year, and taxpayers spend at least $611,000 to house one juvenile killer for the duration of a 30-year sentence.

Bottom line: It makes more sense to address the needs of children on the front end than the back end.

Howard Fuller: It's not only about education

The problems Duvall discovered remain ever present in Milwaukee.

Former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintended Howard Fuller has changed his mind about what is most needed to address kids' needs. For years, Fuller stressed reading and literacy as keys to lifting children out of poverty, but during an April discussion on “Building a Stronger Milwaukee” at Alverno College, Fuller said he's come to believe that the problems are more complicated than that.

“If kids come to school and they have no clothes. If kids come to school and they are hungry. Kids come to school from communities where violence is a part of their everyday life. Kids come to school from totally economically deprived families,” Fuller said. It takes more than just making sure that kids show up for class.

“If we want our kids to thrive in a school, they have to be in a thriving community," Fuller said. "They have to be in a community that cares about them. They have to be in a community that protects them. A community that loves them. A community that nurtures them.”

Fuller has long declared that if we fail to love, protect, and nurture the Marlin Dixons of the world when they are ages 3, 4, and 5, then we don’t want to see them at 13, 14, and 15 because by then it is too late.

“If we cared about our children, we would not have them living in the condition in which they live,” he said.

Why we're hosting this event

My report on Dixon prompted words of encouragement and offers to help. Here is what some of you had to say:

“Your story on Marlin is uplifting, educational, and quite sad. I’m rooting for him, but I wonder if there is an opportunity for his probationary period to be shortened or altered? It seems it is setting him up for failure and it doesn’t seem fair," Sarah Wester wrote. "Also, I live in the Falls and I’m glad he has found a safe home here. I hope our community is treating him well. Thanks for writing this article. I rarely read full articles, sorry to admit, but this one got me!”

“I work as a pediatric nurse, including with incarcerated youths who have been involved in violent incidents," wrote Lisa Scherrer. "The number of children we see weekly who are abused, neglected, and exposed to violence is devastating. In Waukesha County, there are many who simply do not care about what is happening in Milwaukee. … I’m white, and I know that gave me a leg up in many circumstances where I would not have otherwise been given the benefit of the doubt, despite being a 'good' kid. How do we make the children of Milwaukee real to those in the suburbs? I believe your story is a first step because it brings a level of humanity to an unfathomable situation.”

“Beautiful work on the lives of all involved," wrote Paul Reilly. "I recently retired after 18-plus years as a judge (Waukesha County Circuit Court and District 2 Court of Appeals). The disconnect between the competency of those representing the accused who have the means to pay vs. those representing the indigent is appalling and in my opinion the cause of many excessive sentences (and predominantly to people of color)."

These responses and  hundreds of others are the reason we are hosting the June 11 event. We hope you can come.

James E. Causey
James E. Causey

What we can learn from Marlin Dixon: A special event June 11

What: Discuss childhood trauma and incarceration with community experts and leaders. Featured speakers: Marlin Dixon and reporter Tessa Duvall. Hosted by James E. Causey.

When: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 11

Where: The Table, 5305 W. Capitol Drive

What you need to know: The event is now sold out. You can still join us virtually from 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.  

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: June 11 in Milwaukee: What we can learn from Marlin Dixon about trauma