Tensions ignited recently over the use of specialized treatment courts in Wisconsin.
Rock County District Attorney David O’Leary, citing a largely negative report on the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, said he will not allow new defendants to participate in the program.
But the report, written by University of Wisconsin-Whitewater sociology professor Paul Gregory, holds the veterans court to drug court standards, said Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley, which is unfair.
“(Gregory) says that we don’t meet all of the requirements of drug courts,” said Daley, who helped start the Rock County Veterans Treatment Court Program. “My answer is, so what? Some of the things don’t apply to us because it’s veterans treatment court, not a pure drug court. There’s a difference.”
Gregory’s report found that the veterans court did not properly test for drug and alcohol use, failed to adequately monitor defendants outside of court, applied inconsistent and arbitrary sanctions, and did not train court mentors.
Fusing old and new court models, and applying national frameworks to the particularities of local judiciaries is a task courts have struggled with before, said Douglas Marlowe, chief of science, law and policy with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
“The debate has always been, how much do you hold onto the original model, and how much do you adapt,” Marlowe said. “That tension is also true in mental health courts, family courts.”
In Rock County, a major aspect of that debate concerns substance abuse.
Gregory’s report found that drug and alcohol testing in the veterans court was infrequent and not closely monitored, and questioned why defendants received 24 hours to submit test samples.
While Daley conceded that the 24-hour notice might prevent alcohol from being detected, he said that since the report was issued in January, sheriff’s deputies have been conducting random Breathalyzer tests in Rock, Green and Lafayette counties, from which the court accepts cases. Daley said he is working on getting a similar procedure for Dane County, as well.
Most other substances, Daley said, such as THC and opiates, will still test positive even with the 24-hour notice.
More broadly, Daley argued that drug and alcohol abuse are not the major issues defendants face in veterans court.
“What Mr. O’Leary doesn’t understand, apparently, because he didn’t go to the training period to start the veterans court, is that we’re not a drug court,” Daley said. “Drugs may be part of the issues, but it’s primarily PTSD and traumatic brain injury.”
O’Leary, who did not immediately return calls for comment, defended his position in an email, writing, “The concern is that defendants are being enabled rather than being held accountable.”
When substance abuse is a part of the defendant’s problems, Marlowe said, research shows reliable drug testing is critical to successful treatment.
“Failing to drug test undermines treatment,” he said.
Inconsistent and arbitrary sanctions
The UW-Whitewater report also questioned the court’s application of sanctions, which Gregory found “were given arbitrarily.”
Daley rejected that claim, asserting that such decisions are complex and depend on individual circumstances. Some of the veteran defendants suffer from short-term memory loss, for example.
“I can’t send people to jail for 24 hours because they forgot to go to a treatment if, in fact, part of the symptomology is short-term memory loss,” Daley said. “If a person who suffers from this misses an appointment, if this were drug court, there would be a sanction. But veterans treatment courts are different because we’re dealing with different issues.”
In such instances, Daley said that instead of a sanction, he would work with a defendant to find treatment for the memory problems.
In a phone interview, Gregory declined to respond to Daley’s specific claims, but said he stands by the veracity of his report.
Lack of mentor training
His report recommended that program mentors – veterans from the community who have volunteered to interact with defendants – should undergo formal training.
Daley said that when the court started, mentors participated in a four- to five-hour role-playing exercise so they would know how to connect with defendants and encourage them to open up. He questioned whether more training was necessary.
“They’re not counselors, they’re not psychologists, they’re not AODA treatment people,” he said. “They’re just mentors – someone who’s gone through the same sort of thing.
“I don’t know how much more training we can get for them, but we’re willing to do that if I can identify specifically the treatment they’re looking for.”
Differences are key
It’s difficult to compare treatment courts, said Tom Hinz, mentor and resource coordinator for the Northeast Wisconsin Veterans Treatment Court in Green Bay, not only on a drug court versus veterans court perspective, but even among courts specific to veterans.
Every veterans court in the country is different, he said, as are the defendants.
“Some have domestic issues,” Hinz said. “Some have drinking. Some have drugs. Some have both. They might have a criminal issue outside of drinking or drugs. Every case is so unique.”
Hinz said the Northeast Wisconsin court does not hesitate to keep defendants accountable, however. If someone is ordered not to drink and does, that person will spend the night in jail, he said. Unlike the Rock County veterans court, he said, the Northeast Wisconsin court does not give 24-hour notice to defendants for drug or alcohol testing.
Some defendants in the Northeast Wisconsin court have remote sobriety-testing systems in their homes. Defendants will receive a telephone call at random, Hinz said, and be instructed to breathe into the testing device. If alcohol is detected, the defendant will be arrested and put in jail.
“We have pretty strict monitoring up here,” Hinz said. “We have checks and balances in our system.”
Until Rock County officials can work through the concerns raised there, O’Leary said, he will continue to hold off on allowing new participants.
In an email attributed to O’Leary, the DA wrote, “I have been asking for a meeting with the primary agencies involved ever since the report came out but no such meeting has been held or even scheduled.”
“We have no guidelines that would permit the treatment court team to review the individuals referred to determine if they are appropriate,” O’Leary wrote. “We have no control over the number of cases that can be referred from other counties. My sworn duty is to protect and serve the citizens of Rock County, it is not to use my limited resources for the benefit of other counties.”