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Dane County court aims to help young, first-time offenders

Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — If she were almost anyone else, Genele Laird would be looking for a good lawyer now, or asking the court to appoint one if she couldn’t afford it.

She might be entering a plea, waiving her preliminary hearing, filing a witness list and otherwise preparing for a trial on four felony charges associated with her arrest outside East Towne Mall on June 21, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Instead, the black 18-year-old forcibly arrested by two white Madison police officers — after reportedly brandishing a knife and threatening people inside the mall — is doing a lot of talking, and, it’s hoped, reflecting on how her actions affected others, according to staff with Dane County’s Community Restorative Court, or CRC, to which Laird was referred by District Attorney Ismael Ozanne after a video of her arrest went viral.

Started a year ago as a pilot program in South Madison, the court doles out community-based restorative justice to young, first-time offenders charged with certain misdemeanors. The idea is to allow people ages 17 to 25 to avoid jail time and the negative stamp of an early criminal record if they accept responsibility for their wrongdoing and agree to help repair the harm they’ve done through community service and, sometimes, financial restitution imposed by a panel of service providers and neighborhood residents known as “peacemakers.”

The program differs from the traditional court system in part by requiring offenders to sit down with their victims or their representatives, answering their questions and hearing firsthand how their actions hurt them.

“The biggest thing we can do (to fight and help prevent crime) is ensure we are raising young people with empathy,” Ozanne said. “That’s what we help to foster with the CRC. I’m not saying it’s going to be successful every time, but for many youthful offenders it can be.”

Offenders also speak in the sessions, in which everyone faces one another in a circle, offering context and background that may help explain their actions and demonstrate their need for social services, such as counseling, housing assistance or job training. After a sentence is settled on, the program monitors offenders’ progress and connects them with services — a “carrot” that advocates say helps reduce repeat offenses and increase restitution compared with regular court outcomes.

“We’re asking defendants to confront and face the harm they’ve caused and help repair that,” said Ozanne, who referred Laird, a high school dropout who worked at the mall and had little contact with her family, to the restorative court program on June 23.

The program made an exception in Laird’s case, since she faced potential felonies. The offenses also occurred outside the original South Madison target area of the program, although since early June the program has begun taking in cases countywide, according to special prosecutor and DA’s office liaison, Barb Franks.

Ozanne referred Laird to the program with the agreement of the two officers she scratched, kicked and spat at during the arrest. He also got the OK of people inside the mall whom she reportedly threatened to harm before police were called: mall security officers and a food court employee she believed stole her cellphone.

In keeping with program rules, the victims inside the mall were offered the chance to take part in the circle sessions, but they declined, program coordinator Ron Johnson said. But input gleaned from from his interviews with them will allow their views to be represented, he said.

The two officers also could be invited to take part, Johnson said, depending on the outcome of a use-of-force review examining their actions during the arrest, which included Officer Andrew Muir’s use of knee strikes, a punch to the side and shocks with a Taser in an effort to get handcuffs on Laird.

So far, Laird is doing well in the program, Johnson said.

“Genele was able to meet all of the circle participants and tell her story,” he said, adding more discussions still need to take place and a penalty determined. “The outcomes from here on out are in the hands of the community, as represented by the peacemakers and other circle participants.”

Laird’s case is the 34th for the CRC, which formed in early June 2015.

Of the 30 cases processed through the end of the court’s first year on June 10, 19 were completed and 11 are ongoing.

Of those 19 offenders — known as “respondents” in restorative justice parlance — 14, or nearly 75 percent, successfully completed their sentences, known as “repair harm agreements,” allowing them to avoid a record.

“(We can) hold (offenders) accountable but keep them from having criminal records that affect employment and housing and educational opportunities,” said Ron Chance, program manager for the CRC in the Dane County Human Services Department, which administers the program.

Of the five offenders who weren’t successful, four decided not to do the program — participation is voluntary, for both offenders and victims — and one was terminated for non-compliance but was later reinstated after agreeing to return to the program.

Failing or quitting the program results in charges being reinstated or tickets being reissued if the offense was an ordinance violation. All four who declined to participate in the program had been cited with city or town of Madison ordinance violations and paid the fines instead, a State Journal records check showed.

To those who charge that restorative justice is a slap on the wrist, advocates note first offenders facing misdemeanors in the traditional court system typically just receive probation anyway; legally, judges are required to consider it as their first option.

The regular court system also typically requires payment of a small fine but little substantive interaction between victims and offenders, unlike that required by the CRC.

“It’s about making the offender part of the solution while elevating the voice of the victim and giving them a more active role,” said Jonathan Scharrer, director of a long-standing, prison-based restorative justice program run through UW-Madison’s Law School. Scharrer also helped set up the South Madison CRC.

Originally covering just the Madison Police Department’s South District, the CRC began working with town of Madison police in March and is in discussions with Fitchburg police now, officials said, in addition to taking limited countywide case referrals from the district attorney’s office beginning June 1.

The CRC remains primarily aimed at young first offenders who face municipal ordinance violations or misdemeanor charges for five specific offenses: battery, theft, disorderly conduct, obstruction and damage to property. Two additional offenses, graffiti and solicitation of a prostitute, were represented in some first-year cases, records show.

Laird’s case includes several felony charges, which Ozanne said he would reinstate if Laird failed to complete the program. Those offenses include discharging bodily fluids at a police officer, battery to a police officer, disorderly conduct while armed and resisting an officer while causing soft-tissue injury.

Program advocates described the expansion of CRC’s mission, both in its accepted offenses and geographical reach, as typical for pilot programs.

“We have had just a small handful of cases that have not exactly fit the criteria, but they have been very good cases for this program to take on,” advisory board member Karen Reece said. “We are actually taking the time to sit down and evaluate cases so that we can work out a process that really works — that’s not cookie-cutter, and that is going to be effective for Dane County.”

Ozanne said he was OK with sometimes sending more serious crimes to the CRC and with expanding its footprint across Dane County, with continuing support from area law enforcement and the broader community.

He described making the program available to qualified offenders throughout the county as a matter of legal fairness — notwithstanding the financial and logistical challenges to doing so.

“We need to be able to offer this option to all youth 17 to 25 in our community,” he said. “That’s probably our biggest bang for our buck, but it’s not to say it couldn’t also be used for higher-profile or more complex cases.”

“We’ve always thought this was going to be a stair-step approach,” Ozanne added. “This is perfect timing for the discussion to occur as to what the CRC would need to cover the whole county. I can’t overstate what I believe the benefit can be with this model, both for the community and truly to hopefully foster a stronger relationship with law enforcement in the community.”

The program’s annual budget now is $70,000, much of it for Johnson’s salary. Johnson is the program’s sole full-time operational staffer, with volunteers, often by design, filling many of the other roles in the program, which is based at Centro Hispano at 810 W. Badger Road.

Johnson said he is surprised “every time” by what happens when victims and offenders sit down and face each other. So far, it’s always been a pleasant surprise.

“A circle is an amazing display of humanity,” Johnson said. “It’s basically a conversation. We talk about not only the issue of the crime but about the people involved and their history and what brought them to this point in their lives.”

“It’s an atmosphere that is conducive to people opening up and going deep,” he added.

Johnson cited one encounter he witnessed in the past year that appeared to be particularly cathartic.

The case involved damage done by a young man to the property of an older woman.

At first, the woman was just angry, Johnson recalled, and determined that the man would pay restitution — which he now is doing in one of the 11 ongoing cases from last year, Johnson added.

But as the conversation continued, the mood in the circle started to change, especially when the offender recounted abuse he had suffered as a child and other troubles growing up. The victim in the case then started crying, Johnson recalled, “and she started talking about some of the abuse she had gone through in her own life.”

“So before it was over, the victim and (the offender) were both crying, got up, hugged each other,” Johnson said. “So they found some similarities, some relationship, right in the middle of their anguish.”

Other times the sessions are more cut and dried. In a case in which a woman was owed some money for damages, the offender couldn’t pay because he didn’t have a job, Johnson said. So Johnson asked if the woman would lower the amount she wanted or agree to “sidestep” restitution altogether.

“She said, ‘Absolutely not.’ She said, ‘I need my money. As a matter of fact, I’ll help him get a job,’ and she did,” Johnson said. “So victims find the restorative process to be a good way to help them resolve conflict and stress, and also to address the whole issue of restitution.”

Most CRC offenders over the past year have had to complete 15 to 30 hours of community service as part of their sentences at area nonprofits including the Goodman Center, the Tenant Resource Center, Heartland Animal Farm, Centro Hispano, St. Vincent DePaul, Fountain of Life and the Boys and Girls Club.

Other requirements for some offenders included writing letters of apology to victims, police and store clerks; writing research papers on youth violence and prostitution; and paying restitution ranging from $100 to $4,000. Most sentences took three months to complete.

So far, none of the offenders who completed the program has committed more crimes, officials said, with additional checks to be made every six months.

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