By ROD STETZER
The Chippewa Herald
CHIPPEWA, Wis. (AP) — It is an unusual scene for a courtroom.
The judge applauds the people appearing before him, The Chippewa Herald reported. Slips with names of those going before the judge are placed in a container and one is drawn out for a prize.
Judge Roderick Cameron started Chippewa County’s drug court in 2007. Judge James Isaacson has been helping Cameron with it for seven years.
“If I didn’t think it was worth my time, trust me, I wouldn’t do it,” Isaacson said after an Oct. 14 session of drug court, which took part in the county Department of Human Services’ Day in the Life program.
“It’s a different type of court because the judge gets to know them well,” said Rose Baier, criminal justice collaborating council coordinator for Chippewa County, of the people appearing in drug court.
The court, which will be funded from 2017-19 by a $300,00 Federal Drug Court Enforcement grant, serves up to 25 people, who are in various stages of recovery from alcohol or drug use. They show up for drug court either every week, every other week, once a month or two times in six months.
When they do, they can expect to receive encouragement for the things they are doing right in their lives, such as the length of their sobriety, and hear about where they have fallen short.
“We need to stress to (you) about your choices,” Isaacson told a woman appearing before him Friday in cautioning the woman about her friends. “You’re doing so well on your own. Don’t let someone else bring you down.”
Another person going before Isaacson detailed his struggles at work. Isaacson told the man he needed to prove himself to his new employer, and the man said things are improving at work.
A second man said he’s missed a couple of required meetings, but will make them up next week.
“You have done so well and structured employment is good for you as well,” Isaacson said.
When each person went before Isaacson the judge announced the person’s sobriety date, which is greeted with applause in the courtroom.
When they did something well, they got a slip to write their name. One slip is selected at the end of the court session, such as a gift card at a store or extra furlough time.
The idea is to provide encouragement for the offenders to continue changing their lives. It is a more intensive way of handling offenders, giving them structure and help at the same time.
Many offenders have jail time hanging over their heads if they take a wrong turn.
And the offenders know their progress is being checked.
“I’m never late,” one woman told Isaacson on Friday.
“Well, electronic monitoring says otherwise,” the judge replied.
Baier said the program has had 25 graduates since 2013. Of those, five have re-offended. And of those five, three were for a non-drug offense and two were drug-related.
Isaacson said one woman in drug court had two kids in foster care. Now, she has a job and is paying taxes.
“Her two kids now are being raised in a safe and sober environment,” he said.
That’s due in part to the efforts of a treatment team of a judge, Baier, a case manager, the state Department of Corrections, law enforcement, the state public defender’s office, the district attorney’s office, a treatment provided, UW-Extension and the staff of the Chippewa County Jail. At one point or another, they all play a part.
The offenders have to do their part as well. They must show they have done 40 hours of what the court considers constructive activity. That’s holding a job or looking for one, or being part of a self-help group or getting treatment.
Last year, the average number of prior offenses by drug court participants was nine. The drug they are using more and more is meth.
“To an certain extent, meth is replacing alcohol,” Isaacson said.
He said when he started on the bench, he never thought he would have to take away babies from their mothers who are meth-dependent. But that’s what he’s been forced to do.
Drug addiction is a complex problem and staying sober isn’t easy.
But a little bit of applause, encouragement mixed with structure and discipline can provide another way to attack the problem.