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BENCH BLOG: The case for more treatment courts

Success has bred success for state’s specialized offerings

Wisconsin has become a hotbed for treatment courts.

Jean DiMotto is a retired Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge. She served for 16 years, and was on the criminal bench for 12 of those years.

Judge Jean DiMotto retired in 2013 after 16 years on the Milwaukee County Circuit bench and now serves as a reserve judge.

The first such court in Wisconsin was established in 1996. Now nearly 60 are in existence and several more are in development.

Why are they so popular? Because they work and they cost less than incarceration.

Drug court models

Most of the treatment courts in Wisconsin are drug courts. Some, such as Milwaukee County’s, only deal with people abusing illicit substances such as cocaine, heroin, opiates and methamphetamine.

Others, such as those in Eau Claire, Outagamie and Pierce counties, are combined drug/alcohol courts. And now counties such as Price and Taylor are offering OWI courts, as well.

The target population for any such court is “high-risk, high-need” offenders. As defined by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, these are people addicted to illicit drugs or alcohol who are at substantial risk of reoffending or failing a less intensive disposition such as pretrial services or standard probation.

The court programs typically are conducted over a 12- to18-month period, often coincident to a post-conviction term of probation or an alternative to revocation of probation or extended supervision.

The programs are evidence-based and consist of drug or alcohol testing, treatment individually or in groups, and judicial oversight. This oversight is provided in status hearings held weekly in the first phase of the programs, bi-weekly in the second phase and monthly in the final phase(s).

According to a 2013 report by the NADCP, “The scientific community has put drug courts under a microscope and concluded that drug courts significantly reduce drug abuse and crime and do so at far less expense than any other justice strategy.”

Judicial oversight

Based on the drug court model, most treatment courts are held one half-day per week by the judge overseeing the program. The judge meets with case workers and counsel ahead of the open-court session in order to be apprised of participants’ progress.

Then the judge interacts with each participant in the courtroom. Pursuant to NADCP standards, the judge typically makes supportive comments, stresses the importance of commitment to treatment, and expresses optimism about the participant’s ability to improve health and behavior.

This face-to-face contact with the judge is considered a key element of the rehabilitative effort, according to a five-year, multisite study by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute.

Patrick Isenberger, drug court coordinator for Eau Claire County, said he sees the benefits firsthand.

“Having a person of authority in their corner, sincerely wanting to help them with their lives, is a powerful influence for sobriety,” he said.

When there is noncompliance – by drug or alcohol use, or treatment nonattendance – the judge has the option of sanctions, typically a few days in jail. Brown County Circuit Judge Marc Hammer said he believes the more certain and swift the sanction, the better.

More serious or sustained noncompliance leads to being dropped from the program as well as revocation of probation or extended supervision, or sentencing on withheld sentences.

Racine County Circuit Judge Gerald Ptacek said he finds participants’ progress compelling.

“You watch them change in their demeanor and the way they walk,” he said. “Their complexion improves. As they graduate the program, they say, ‘you saved my life’ and families report that ‘you gave us back our son/daughter, husband/wife.’”


While sobriety is a worthy goal in itself, the effect of drug courts is not limited to sobriety.

Reports from Eau Claire and Outagamie counties’ treatment courts cite the positives of participants’ employment, paying taxes, paying child support, and receiving visitation rights or placement of children.

Though savings on incarceration are easier to measure, Pierce County Circuit Judge Joseph Boles said, these other benefits stack up, as well.

“It is harder to measure the benefit to the participant’s family when the cycle of addiction and crime is broken,” he said. “[We see things like] recovered marriages, good parenting and the positive effect this has on the kids.”

Hammer said he observes that recidivism is eliminated for the majority of participants and for those who reoffend, the crimes are less serious.

The next generation

The newer generation of treatment courts includes mental health and veterans courts.

Mental health courts provide supervision to mentally ill people who wind up in the justice system because of their illness. Psychiatric treatment as well as employment, stable housing and compliance with medication regimes are goals for these participants.

Veterans courts link VA services to the participants. There is an additional layer of help in that a veteran mentor is assigned to each participant.

Brown County Circuit Judge Kendall Kelley presides over a veterans court where he, the prosecutor, public defender, probation/parole agents and the mentors are all veterans or in active reserve status.

“We volunteer because we wish to help those who have found themselves with mental health and legal problems as a result of sacrifices they have made on behalf of our country,” he said.

Kelley said the court differs from drug treatment courts in that it deals more often with post-traumatic stress disorders and traumatic brain injuries and “the alcohol or substance abuse problems that derive from or are related to those conditions.”

New frontiers

Based on the success of drug courts and their successors, a new crop of specialty courts are in the works for Wisconsin.

Lincoln County Circuit Judge Jay Tlusty and Langlade County Circuit Judge Fred Kawalski are planning a regional OWI court.

In Milwaukee County, Circuit Judge Karen Christenson spearheaded the creation of a CHIPS court where the sobriety incentive for addicted parents is being reunited with their children.

And two counties have collaborated with Native Americans for a Healing to Wellness court. Jackson County Circuit Judge Thomas Lister teams with the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Vilas County Circuit Judge Neal Nielsen teams with the Lac du Flambeau to incorporate native cultural practices in an effective return to sobriety.

Treatment courts are a growing presence in Wisconsin because success breeds success.

As Eau Claire County Circuit Judge Michael Schumacher said, treatment court “creates an opportunity to use judicial authority in a constructive way, allowing judges to engage interpersonally with the participants in meaningful ways.

“The repeated status hearings allow judges to establish ongoing relationships with offenders that can be caring and supportive, as well as disciplinary.”


It is heartening to know that the creativity, commitment and hard work of treatment court judges and associated staff members have paid good dividends in their communities.

Treatment courts lower jail and prison costs. They contribute to individual and community welfare. Thus, the state (through grants) and counties get a good return on their financial investment.

Since evidence-based drug-court models seem to transfer well to courts for veterans, the mentally ill and CHIPS parents, the momentum for treatment courts continues to grow.

I don’t see a downside.

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