La Crosse County Diversion Coordinator Kim Joki said his favorite phrase is, “No offense, Kim, but I never want to see you again.”
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers hopes a lot more people in Joki’s position hear those words.
Evers traveled to La Crosse on Thursday to promote an additional $15 million in state funding for Treatment Alternatives and Diversion programming. The program was established in 2005 to provide treatment and diversion programs for nonviolent offenders whose offenses are linked to substance abuse.
The state provides over $7 million annually for the program, and Evers’ proposed biennial budget would increase funding to $15 million. State Sen. Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska, said the program is effective and has enjoyed “broad, bipartisan support” in the Legislature.
“This is an investment that will prove life-changing for many people in Wisconsin who suffer from addiction,” Pfaff said. “To me, it’s common sense to come together for a program like this.”
La Crosse County Justice Support Manager Mandy Bisek said 400 people in the county are served by the program, which holds offenders accountable “without the ill effects of a criminal record.” Treatment and diversion options are limited to offenders who are “low to moderate risk of reoffending, she noted.
Joki said the program provides clients with drug counseling, anger management and parenting skills. It also guides clients during their first trip through the criminal justice system.
“Most are new to the criminal justice system,” Joki said. “For some, getting their first glimpse of the criminal justice process is enough to deter them from wanting to commit another offense.”
He said the program is effective in motivating first-time offenders to “self-correct” and takes a load off the criminal justice system.
“This allows resources and services to be directed to those who need them,” Joki said.
Evers said the diversion and treatment program is part of broader criminal justice reform. He said the system has been “putting a strain on our communities and on our families for far, far too long” and disproportionately impacts people of color.
“There is no true path forward for the state unless we have some criminal justice reform,” Evers said. “We can’t keep throwing taxpayers’ dollars into a system that doesn’t help our state or our people thrive.”
Evers hopes the additional funding will encourage more counties to embrace the approach. Nineteen counties in the state, including Vernon and Juneau, have no type of treatment or diversion program.
“La Crosse County has been doing a great job for a long time in this area,” Evers said. “We need to make sure we move this aggressively across the state.”
Evers said the program is cost-effective. He said the state saves $4.17 for every dollar invested in the treatment program and $8.68 for every dollar spent on the diversion program.
“Reforming our justice system isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do,” Evers said.
Mayo Clinic Health System began putting its new Wisconsin Department of Health grant to use Thursday afternoon, administering doses of the Pfizer vaccine to community members considered underserved or marginalized.
Earlier this month, Mayo was one of 100 organizations statewide to be awarded DHS funding to promote racial and geographic equity in COVID-19 vaccination, receiving $49,867.
As part of the hospital’s plan to increase awareness of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and ensure its availability to all eligible demographics, Mayo teamed up with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater La Crosse to host COVID-19 vaccination clinics on four consecutive Thursdays.
The next clinic will run from 2 to 6 p.m. April 22 at the Terry Erickson Boys & Girls Club, 1331 Clinton St., with additional clinics being held 2 to 6 p.m. April 29 and May 6 at the Amie L. Mathy Boys & Girls Club, 811 8th St. S. First dose vaccinations are open to persons 18 and older, and second dose appointment dates will be advised.
In La Crosse County, over 50,000 residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and as of early April the breakdown among ethnicities showed disparities, with 6.8% of Black persons, 10.9% of American Indians and 11.3% of Asians having received at least one vaccine dose versus 24.1% of white persons.
Several local leaders spoke about the need for vaccination sites beyond hospital locations and increased access to accurate information, citing issues of distrust among some groups and barriers others face in getting to an inoculation site.
Mark Lockett, pastor at the Neighborhood City Church in La Crosse, says the majority of congregation members are eager to get or have gotten the vaccine, but he has heard some “suspicion or concern” about the COVID-19 vaccines, with “competing narratives” leading to confusion. An “authoritative voice that instills confidence in the community” is needed, Lockett says.
Iola Stallings, a member of Mayo Clinic Health System’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity committee and retired Mayo employee, agrees there is an issue of distrust, and cites social media as an often inaccurate source of information. Having gotten her doses and experiencing no adverse effects, Stallings urges members of the Black community to get their shots, pointing out the greater good.
“If a shot is all it’s going to take to help someone live a fruitful life, take the chance...it’s not (just) about you, it’s about the people who love you and are around you,” Stallings says. “I would hate to think by not getting my shot I could be a carrier and get someone else sick.”
Thomas Harris, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Student Services at UW-La Crosse, encourages those who are hesitant to be inoculated to look at it as protective step beyond the masking, distancing and sanitation practices that are ongoing. Arlette Rodriguez-Miller, executive director of The Greater La Crosse Area Diversity Council and Coulee Region Immigration Taskforce chair, urges against believing since others are getting vaccinated you will be protected and don’t need a shot yourself.
Rodriguez-Miller says there has been fear among local undocumented individuals about going to vaccination sites, believing they will need a form of ID, and Nao (Tony) Houa Yang, president of the Hmong Center in La Crosse, says for the Hmong community language barriers have made information about the available vaccines and how to obtain them a challenge.
Recently, a vaccination clinic was held at the Hmong Cultural and Community Agency, where around 300 doses were given and more people expressed interest, Yang says.
Members of the Hmong community, Yang says, have been “looking forward to getting their family out to get their shots” and says, “We don’t want to make decisions for people but we are here to help people. If people have any questions call our agency.”
For Dr. Caroline Wilker, chair of Mayo’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity committee, the need for efficient vaccination community wide is crucial as more contagious variants of the coronavirus emerge and cases begin to see an uptick in the midwest.
“We are on the precipice of this being over and we all want it be over, and this is the main tool we have to get there,” Wilker says.
Pre-registration is required for the Boys and Girls Club vaccine clinics. Interested individuals are asked to call 608-782-3926 to make an appointment. Masks must be worn and distancing followed while onsite.
Local providers brought the COVID-19 vaccine to homebound individuals Thursday morning, ensuring those without the ability to venture out had the opportunity for inoculation.
La Crosse County Health & Human Services, in partnership with Inclusa and Gundersen Health System, provided first dose Pfizer vaccinations to those unable to leave their dwellings due to medical conditions. With all Wisconsinites 16 and older now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, local entities are working to give persons of all demographics easy access to their shots.
In previous weeks, Gundersen gave vaccines to area unsheltered individuals, and Mayo is hosting four vaccine clinics at the Boys and Girls Club La Crosse locations to reach underserved persons. In addition, the Health Department has facilitated vaccine sites at the Hmong Cultural and Community Agency and Becker Plaza, part of the La Crosse Housing Authority.
On Thursday, several Gundersen physicians and resident physicians, along with a Gundersen nurse, separated into three teams and visited six individual residences each in several La Crosse County cities, inoculating a total of 18 people who were confined due to illness, age or disability. The teams will return in three weeks to give second doses.
Inclusa and the Health Department helped identify interested individuals, and after Gundersen did prescreening and gave the shots Inclusa staff did the post-dose monitoring. The teams may go out again if more persons are needing at-home vaccination.
“This was truly a team effort,” says Dr. Robyn Borge of Gundersen, who is also the La Crosse County medical advisor. “It required a lot of coordination.”
The experience was “eye opening” for the medical residents, Borge says, as some of those being inoculated had very severe conditions and circumstances. While homebound persons have less exposure to COVID-19 due to not being in public places frequently or at all, many have a rotation of caregivers or family members who visit them and could be carriers of the virus or susceptible themselves.
“For me being able to provide the COVID vaccine to some of our most vulnerable residents has really been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” Borge says. “I think it’s a very valuable experience for young physicians. I think taking care of our community is imperative, and they’ve developed a better understanding of some of the environmental and social factors that can affect some of our patients’ health. We are grateful for this opportunity.”
The La Crosse County Health Department, Housing Authority of the City of La Crosse and Gundersen Health System will next facilitate two COVID-19 clinics on Friday at Sauber Manor and the Huber Rec Center. Qualifying individuals have been notified and scheduled.
Four individuals were charged in La Crosse County Circuit Court on Thursday with felonies related to the sale and manufacturing of heroin stemming from a sting operation by local law enforcement.
On April 5, using a confidential informant, officers monitored the sale of 3.8 grams of heroin or fentanyl, which began at a residence on Liberty Street near Logan Middle School and was finalized at an apartment on Ninth Street near the La Crosse Public Library.
At the time of the sale, officers identified Pa Zielke, 40, La Crosse, and followed them, the CI and others around the city for a time; the criminal complaint noted that Zielke was nervous about police presence, eventually ending up at the 9th Street residence where the sale was made.
During the operation using a recording device on the CI, officers overheard Zielke, who is also known as Amanda Yang, discussing the price of the drugs, stating that one package was worth “$210 a gram” while others were more expensive. Officers were then able to listen while the drug transaction took place.
The CI used a police controlled buy money to make the purchase, and all evidence was turned over to law enforcement afterwards.
Later, with the help of partnering law enforcement agencies, officers were able to identify Jerren E. Springs, 34, and Steven J. Smith, 41, both of La Crosse, present at the time of the sale.
On April 13, officers arrested both Zielke and Springs in Stoddard, according to the criminal complaints involved in the case, though not many other details were offered about the arrests.
That same day, after identifying Smith’s involvement in the operation and receiving tips, including possession of the controlled buy money from April 5, officers conducted a probation search at the residence on Liberty Street where Smith was seen.
During the search, officers also identified Maggie M. Mitchell, 22, La Crosse, in the residence. According to the criminal complaint, Mitchell appeared to drop something while speaking with police, where officers later found a gem baggie of fentanyl. She later told officers she was at the residence to purchase drugs, and Smith said she was there to “crash.”
Officers placed Smith in handcuffs while conducting the search of the apartment, stating it was for their safety due to Smith’s large size.
During the search, officers noted a plastic scale with 1.4 grams of methamphetamine on it, a digital scale with .4 grams of fentanyl and a meth pipe with white residue in plain view in the living room.
Later, $100 of controlled buy money used in the April 5 drug sting was located in Smith’s jacket. Other evidence found during the search included a scale top containing meth and leasing agreements and bills.
Both Smith and Mitchell were arrested and taken into custody at the time of the probation search.
Zielke was charged Thursday with two felonies for manufacturing and delivering heroin, with the intent to deliver near a park and school. She was given a $10,000 cash bond.
Smith was also charged with two felonies for possession and intent to deliver meth near a school, and with maintaining a drug trafficking place. He was released on a $2,000 signature bond Thursday.
Springs was charged with a felony for manufacturing and delivering heroin near a park. He was released on a $2,5000 signature bond. And Mitchell was charged with one felony count for possession of narcotic drugs, and was released on a $1,000 signature bond.