Inside Track: Specialty courts: Justice system partners find solutions to ease budgets, reduce crime, and help offenders make lasting changes:

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  • Specialty courts: Justice system partners find solutions to ease budgets, reduce crime, and help offenders make lasting changes

    Many of Wisconsin's approximately 40 "specialty" or "problem-solving" courts have cropped up in the last five years. These courts hold nonviolent offenders accountable while providing an opportunity to address the root cause of their problems — often substance abuse — through counseling and treatment.

    Joe Forward

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    Judge John Markson

    Dane County Circuit Court Judge John Markson currently oversees the Dane County Drug Treatment Court, which has been in existence since 1996 and accepts about 100 new cases per year.

    Judge John Daley

    Rock County Circuit Court Judge James Daley helped establish the state’s first veteran’s court in 2009. Now, Wisconsin has six of the approximately 46 veteran’s court or veteran’s assistance programs nationwide.

    Judge Michael Schumacher

    Judge Michael Schumacher, circuit court Judge for Eau Claire County, oversees the Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers court, the first of its kind in the state. Through counseling and treatment, the court helps single mothers with substance abuse or mental health problems remain available to parent their children.

    Feb. 2, 2011 – Through implementation of “specialty” or “problem-solving” court programs, judges and other justice system partners in Wisconsin are taking innovative steps to reduce crime and recidivism rates, ease state and local budgets, and give criminal offenders an opportunity to make lasting life changes.

    The specialty court concept, which focuses on rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration, isn’t a new one. Nearly 2,500 drug-related courts exist nationwide. But over the past few years, more Wisconsin counties are implementing specialty courts.

    Drug courts make up the majority of community courts in the state; however some counties have introduced other programs – like veteran, OWI, and mental health courts. Eau Claire County also started a court for single mothers. All of these courts promote enforced treatment.

    “Drug courts are a smart way to address the problem of nonviolent offenders who commit crimes driven by drug addiction,” said Dane County Circuit Court Judge John Markson, who presides over Dane County’s Drug Treatment Court.

    In some cases, offenders in specialty courts sign contracts to complete a program of treatment or other counseling pursuant to a plea agreement, and a failure to comply results in sentencing on the charges within the range of penalties prescribed by law. In these cases, the plea agreement will control what happens in the event of successful completion.

    Judges, district attorneys, and defense attorneys collaborate with drug treatment or mental health agencies, which provide case managers to oversee treatment plans for each individual.

    Targeting the real problem

    Drug courts have existed in Wisconsin since 1996, the year Dane County established the state’s first adult drug treatment court to address rising drug-related charges. Now, there are nearly 30 drug courts in Wisconsin, including three juvenile drug courts.

    A handful of counties – like Waukesha, Racine, Jackson, La Crosse, Washington, and Grant – also maintain courts specific to OWI offenses. In 2009, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Waukesha County’s first-ever alcohol treatment court successfully reduced the number of repeat offenders over a three-year period.

    The same is true of Dane County’s Drug Treatment Court, which handles about 70 cases at a time, and sees about 100 new cases per year.

    According to recent study by Dr. Randall Brown, director of the Center for Addictive Disorders at U.W. Hospital, people who enter Dane County’s drug court are less likely to reoffend compared with others who go through traditional adjudication.

    Incarceration without effective sustained treatment does not address the addiction, and may result in relapse when an offender is released, says Judge Markson. Further drug use can lead to more crime, and the cycle begins again.

    “The wait lists for treatment in prison can be long,” Judge Markson notes. “Treatment provided in the community has the advantage of helping people address their addiction in the context of the challenges they face and the resources available to them in the community. The best thing to do is to keep people in treatment long enough for it to make a difference.”

    Treatment plans may require drug testing, mandatory counseling, and intensive monitoring. They also provide participants with resources to make lasting changes through employment, education, job training, and community involvement.

    Drug treatment through specialty courts, though expensive, costs less than incarceration. Judge Markson says it costs an average of about $4,500 to put each person through a nine-month treatment program, which is well below the roughly $30,000 it costs for a year in prison.

    “If a person is in treatment rather than prison, the cost savings to taxpayers is significant,” according to Judge Markson. “We have people in our drug treatment court who would almost surely go to prison but for this program. And we aren’t cherry-picking the ones who would succeed without the program. We are working with some tough cases.”

    Helping veterans

    In 2008, the State Public Defender’s Office and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs led an initiative to review the possibility of bringing veteran’s courts to Wisconsin. Former State Public Defender Nick Chiarkas and other Wisconsin delegates from the legal community visited the country’s first veteran’s court in Buffalo, N.Y., to assess the model.

    Now, Wisconsin has six of the 46 veteran’s courts operating nationwide. Rock County established the first veteran’s court in 2009. Eau Claire, Iron, La Crosse, Milwaukee, and Waupaca counties recently opened veteran’s courts or veteran’s legal assistance programs.

    Like drug courts, veteran’s courts give veteran’s better tools to address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and other issues that may contribute to the crime.

    While some specialty courts are limited by funding and other constraints, Rock County Circuit Court Judge James Daley and others have found a way to help veterans at no cost to the county.

    “Treatment courts are expensive programs,” said Judge Daley, who oversees Rock County’s veteran’s court. “The beauty of veteran’s diversion courts is that treatment for those eligible is paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Funding does not come from the county.”

    Initially, a district attorney determines if the veteran meets the eligibility requirements of the court. Eligible veterans are then screened by the VA to determine if there is a treatable issue. If so, the veteran signs a contract to adhere to a year-long plan, or face sanctions for the crime.

    Community courts: Judges find solutions to ease 
budgets, reduce crime, and help offenders make lasting 

    “PTSD and traumatic brain injury are usually accompanied by substance abuse as a means of self-medication,” said Judge Daley, a Vietnam veteran. “Through the veteran’s court program, veteran’s can get treatment for all of these issues at the same time.”

    Over the past two years, nine veterans have participated in the Rock County program. The court recently celebrated its first graduation – an Iraq War veteran.

    Rock County also accepts eligible veterans from other counties. Judge Daley said there isn’t a jurisdictional issue because the court only tracks treatment progress, and if a veteran fails or succeeds in the program, he or she is sent back to the original charging court for resolution.

    Other innovations

    Eau Claire County has implemented the state’s first specialty court specific to single mothers convicted of crimes. Eau Claire’s Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers court, established in 2007, provides single mothers with a support system to address substance abuse and mental health issues so they remain available to parent their children.

    Eau Claire County Circuit Court Judge Michael Schumacher, who oversees the court for single mothers, says 38 women have participated in or are currently enrolled in the program, and 16 have graduated. The recidivism rate for participants and graduates is only 6 percent compared to 38 percent of those terminated or not eligible.

    “The treatment, supervision, and family services provided often times eliminate the need for out-of-home placement of children,” Schumacher said. “Participation also saves money that would have been incurred for incarceration.”

    The specialized court started without funding, and team participation was voluntary. Team members include a judge, prosecutor, public defender, case manager, representatives from the Department of Human Services, treatment providers, and a corrections officer.

    “Most of the team members will tell you this is one of, if not the best thing they do each week,” Schumacher said. “The team members are talented, dedicated, and committed to their treatment court. The result is a tremendous level of collective knowledge and expertise.”

    Schumacher said a very supportive county board, which recently approved funding for full-time coordinator, saw the positive results from the county’s specialty courts and the need to find alternatives to incarceration.

    “The community sees less crime and fewer victims as a result of this court,” Judge Schumacher said, “and the financial benefits associated with less foster care and reduced incarceration.”

    Through specialty court programs like drug courts, veteran’s courts, and other specialized courts, Wisconsin’s legal community is using innovation to improve the legal system, and help individuals make the life changes necessary to avoid criminal behavior in the future. For more information on specialty courts in the state, visit

    By Joe Forward, Legal Writer, State Bar of Wisconsin