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Ethics concerns swirl around crime-prevention contributions

A proposed revival of a law that lets judges force people to contribute to crime-prevention groups as part of sentencing is raising concerns the bill is a gateway to ethical pitfalls.

Assembly Bill 385 would give judges the option of ordering offenders in cases such as misdemeanor domestic violence, drug possession or theft to make a contribution to an appropriate prevention organization.

But judges and court officials say the option could create the perception of favoritism.

Jeff Kremers, Milwaukee County Circuit Court chief judge, said he had the same concerns when the law was on the books four years ago. He said he wonders how judges should determine which organizations get the money.

In 2007, legislators took away the option for judges when changing the law to prevent prosecutors from reducing or dismissing criminal charges in exchange for contributions to organizations. The change followed the conviction of Winnebago County prosecutor Joe Paulus for taking $48,000 in bribes in exchange for lenient sentences.

But state Rep. Andre Jacque, R-Bellevue, who wrote AB 385, said taking away judicial discretion was an unintended consequence in 2007. He said critics of the bill are overestimating its ethical challenges.

“I think it is a helpful way to sustain crime-prevention efforts at the local level if it is not financially burdensome to the criminal defendant,” Jacque said.

If the bill passes, he said, the clerk of courts office in each county would track each contribution.

“We’re not talking about dismissing cases or taking an action for a campaign contribution in exchange for a donation,” Jacque said. “We have a mechanism set up to make sure this isn’t abused.”

The safeguards include documenting the backgrounds of the people associated with each organization, the amount of money they receive, how it is spent and any remaining balance maintained by the clerk’s office.

But John Barrett, Milwaukee County clerk of court, said the process is a “gigantic headache.” Under the old law, he said, his office maintained a Crime Prevention Fund in which many judges pooled their individual orders for contributions to decide together where best to distribute the money.

In 2003, the amount reached a high point of $183,000, Barrett said, and judges still struggled to decide how to divide the money.

“If the legislature wants to give money to crime-prevention organizations,” he said, “go ahead. Just do not have it done by the courts.”

Mary Kuhnmuench, a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, said she never ordered contributions during her time in domestic violence court because she didn’t think it was appropriate given the sensitive nature of the cases.

“I wasn’t sure whether it was ethically permitted,” she said. “I think it’s ill-advised and not something judges should be doing.”

There is the possibility that judges would cross ethical lines, said James Alexander, executive director of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. It could be a problem, for instance, if a judge were to order contributions to a local police department’s crime-prevention budget and then seeks support from that department in an upcoming election, he said.

“Or you could have a situation,” Alexander said, “where a judge develops a bias against defendants that don’t have the ability to pay.”

The proposed legislation leaves it to judges to define what types of groups would be eligible for contributions and how much offenders must pay.

Jacque said in his home district of Manitowoc County, judges typically charged between $5 and $50 under the old law and often directed contributions to local organizations such as Manitowoc Area Crime Stoppers Inc.

He said ethical concerns never came up. Furthermore, he said, there could be a conflict of interest with or without the law if local law enforcement publicly endorses judicial candidates at the circuit court level.

“It’s not something to my knowledge that has ever been raised as a campaign issue,” Jacque said.

Still, Barrett said, it makes more sense for judges to maintain neutrality at all costs.

“If that door is shut,” he said, “I say let’s keep it shut.”

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