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Committee proposes grant program for family treatment court

A legislative study committee tasked with recommending improvements to Wisconsin’s treatment courts voted Wednesday to set up a grant program for family courts.

Under the recommendations, the state Department of Children and Families would award grants to pay for programs aimed at helping parents who have cases in juvenile or children’s courts. Such programs have existed in Wisconsin for some time but there has not been a dedicated source of revenue from the state.

The committee — made up of legislators, judges, attorneys and victims’ advocates — is tasked with reviewing treatment and alternative courts and how they work. It will vote on its final recommendations by mail and send them to the Joint Legislative Council. The Council can then chose whether to accept the recommendations and put forth a bill during the next session, which begins in January.

The idea behind treatment courts is to save money in the long run, based on the ideal that those who go through the programs should be better able to reintegrate into society as they are offered specialized treatment.

And while the majority of the recommendations the committee made pertain to criminal cases, several committee members said treatment courts are important as well. Committee member and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Mary Triggiano, who spoke by phone during the meeting Wednesday, said the grants would allow the programs to be more expansive statewide.

“There is great data on family courts,” committee member and La Crosse County Circuit Judge Elliott Levine said. “It’s considered one of the more effective models out there.”

The committee, led by outgoing state Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, has worked on the recommendations for several months, taking testimony from stakeholders from around the state. Many have to do with putting more state money toward the programs and allowing state offices to monitor success rates for county programs.

The biggest recommendation the committee will make, though, will be to allow certain violent offenders into treatment programs.

Under the provision, the definition of a violent offender would include those charged with an offense during which the person carried, possessed or used a dangerous weapon; an offense during which the person used force against another person; as a result of the person’s offense, a person died or suffered serious bodily harm; or a serious sex offense. For the purposes of treatment, according to the provision, a person with a prior violent conviction would not be considered a violent offender.

While many of the committee’s recommendations were unanimous, the violent offender provision was hotly contested. And while the provision was not taken out at the meeting, an amendment passed Wednesday would require counties that will accept violent offenders into their programs to consult a treatment provider for a victim of violence before submitting a grant application to the state. Also, if a victims’ rights advocate is available, he or she must serve on a committee that oversees the project.

Often, Levine said, domestic violence and drug cases are intertwined. But Committee member Tony Gibart, public policy coordinator for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, said he proposed the amendment so a court “will make ample consideration for the safety of the victim” instead of just tending to the needs of the defendant.

Also during the meeting, the committee voted to request an audit from the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to see whether there are racial disparities between individuals between those arrested for drug crimes and those allowed into treatment programs.

The request was spurred by an article by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. It reported that 33 percent of defendants arrested in Dane County for drug crimes were African-American, yet black residents only accounted for 10 percent of drug court participants in the county.

The letter also asks the auditing committee to recommend how to fix any disparities it may find.

About Eric Heisig

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