There are violent offenders deserving of the state’s treatment court options, stakeholders told members of a legislative committee Tuesday.
Per state law, specialized court programs that qualify for Treatment Alternatives and Diversion grants — such as those for veterans and those dealing with drugs, alcohol or mental health concerns — cannot take in violent offenders.
But that should change, said Tony Streveler, research and policy advisor for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
“Risk assessment should drive evidence-based practices,” Streveler said at Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee on Problem-Solving Courts, Alternatives, and Diversions, which is comprised of legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and other stakeholders. “There are violent offenders who are low risk [for reoffending] and nonviolent offenders who are high risk.”
The idea, if accepted, would open a new group of defendants to certain treatment courts instead of prison.
The idea behind treatment courts is to save money in the long run, as those who go through the programs are supposed to be better able to reintegrate into society as they are offered specialty treatment. To Streveler and the DOC, allowing more defendants into treatment courts would mean less money spent on inmates.
Tuesday’s committee meeting was the second held by the group, which is tasked with reviewing treatment and alternative courts and how they work. The committee is expected to make recommendations to the Joint Legislative Council on what can be done to improve the courts and their recidivism rates, be it through additional money, personnel or guidelines.
The committee is expected to start discussing recommendations during a meeting next month, though no date has been set. If the Joint Legislative Council accepts the committee’s recommendations, a bill will be introduced.
The question, though, is whether the Legislature will accept any of the committee’s recommendations when it reconvenes next session. Committee co-chairman, Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, is not running for re-election, as he is now running for Secretary of State. He said Tuesday “he would not predict what the next Legislature would do.”
He acknowledged there is “room for development” in the treatment court system, and that letting in certain violent offenders could be an option.
Still, the takeaway from most people’s testimony Tuesday was there needs to be more resources for individual programs, and the money to go along with it.
Many of the treatment programs around the state are paid for by state and federal grants, as well as private money. But grants don’t come with a long-term guarantee.
“Federal monies are just like any grant dollars, they come and they go,” Michelle Cern of the Director of State Courts’ office told the committee. “They’re meant to be there to pilot and work out their kinks.”
Bies said if the Legislature ends up passing bills that require certain treatment courts, it would need to include money to support them to avoid an “unfunded mandate.”
Kit Van Stelle, researcher and principal investigator for UW Population of Health Institute, showed the committee data demonstrating some successes in certain treatment courts in Wisconsin. She said she wished there was data to evaluate treatment providers, as well, to show that components of certain programs are producing the desired effects.
However the committee proceeds, La Crosse County Circuit Judge Elliot Levine told his fellow committee members it needs to be aware of “the issue of buy-in by various components.” If there is going to be some sort of standard or money for a program, he said, it’s important that prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges from across the state agree with it.
“A certain belief just in the model creates a situation where you’ll have vacuums in certain areas,” Levine said.
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