A legislative study committee voted Wednesday to recommend several changes to Wisconsin’s treatment courts system.
However, one item that several groups have lobbied for – regarding allowing certain violent offenders to participate in the program – was put off until the group’s next meeting in September.
The study committee, led by outgoing state Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, is tasked with looking at ways to improve treatment and specialty courts in Wisconsin. The committee’s recommendations, with the blessing of the Joint Legislative Council, could be introduced in the next session, which begins in January.
The committee considered several possible recommendations during its meeting Wednesday, from providing a permanent source of money for a statewide treatment court coordinator to supporting the creation of an integrated system to collect data from counties.
But the consideration of including violent offenders inspired the most discussion.
“There are more than enough nonviolent offenders on the waiting list to expand this,” state Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Kenosha, said during the meeting. “I think you’re risking public safety and the credibility of the program.”
The committee voted to recommend allowing those who are involved in drunken driving treatment courts to try to obtain an occupational license. Those with a license would have to install an ignition interlock device, and a judge would have to grant the license.
Committee member Troy Cross, an assistant district attorney in Columbia County, said he didn’t see “any downsides” to that.
“I don’t think it endangers people because of the safeguards,” Cross said.
The committee also recommended the Legislature:
- Making the Wisconsin Criminal Justice Coordinating Council into a permanent council and not just one created by an executive order from Gov. Scott Walker.
- Maintaining a special projects manager position in the Director of State Courts office to help with training efforts for those who run treatment courts.
- Continuing to provide grants for TAD programs.
- Providing money to evaluate county treatment courts.
- Allowing treatment courts to receive information from ignition interlock devices installation information from service providers.
Committee member Joann Stephens, the children, youth and family relations coordinator at Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health, said removing the violent offender ban would mean that “communities would be able to evaluate risk better and be able to catch folks that need treatment.” Bies said he knew somebody who was convicted of a violent crime several years ago and cannot get into a treatment program because of that conviction.
State Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said including those with violent convictions would go a long way toward ensuring there is less of a racial disparity in the program.
“If they are a viable candidate, as high risk and high need, let’s treat them whether they got into a bar fight 10 years ago or not,” Goyke said after the meeting.
After the committee debated the proposal, Bies decided to table it, with the possibility of tweaking it at a future meeting.
Another suggestion that was debated, but ultimately not yet endorsed, was finding a way to ensure that courts exist in each county or that those who live in counties without one can participate in another.
As part of its work, the committee is considering how to ensure that as many defendants as possible have access to treatment courts. Twenty-five counties currently do not have programs.
A memo from the Wisconsin Legislative Council, which put together recommendations based on committee member questions and testimony, said the committee could choose to recommend ensuring “equal access to treatment courts” by ensuring that courts exist in each county or that those who live in counties without one can participate in another.
But several committee members balked at mandating local governments, and instead decided to consider a proposal to give defendants who live outside of a county the possibility of participating in a program in the county where they are charged.
State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, said he thinks “the counties will do the right thing,” but a top-down mandate would be “the wrong approach.”Follow @eheisigWLJ