Judges: Treatment courts are effective
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Judges: Treatment courts are effective

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The city of La Crosse has a new police chief, and we look forward to instituting a collaborative working relationship, similar to that of his predecessors.

To foster that relationship, and in the interest of community awareness, we would like to address his recent comments denigrating treatment courts and questioning bond and sentencing decisions.

These criticisms reflect common misconceptions surrounding the effectiveness of treatment courts and the parameters of judicial decision-making.

Far from being a “revolving door,” the treatment courts — which include Drug Court, OWI Court and Veterans Court — have proven to be the most effective tool in addressing crimes stemming from addiction. Treatment courts are effective because they demand life changes from offenders.

Typically, a treatment court participant is required to comply with:

  • More than one year of intensive supervision.
  • Up to weekly appearances before the court.
  • Monitored and random sobriety testing.
  • Regular participation in support meetings.
  • Requirements of employment and community contribution.
  • Requirements to separate from friends and family who undermine sobriety.
  • Monitoring and coaching by a team consisting of the judge, coordinator, prosecutor, law enforcement, defense attorney, probation and parole, and treatment representatives.

The effectiveness of La Crosse County’s Drug Court was evaluated in 2005 and 2012 by Professor Bill Zollweg of the University of Wisconsin-

La Crosse. Zollweg’s study showed the national recidivism rate for drug offenders who are incarcerated without treatment is 85 percent. However, the recidivism rate of graduates of La Crosse County’s drug court was a mere 20 percent. Even those who participate and are expelled had a reduced recidivism rate of 48 percent.

Due to the success of the Drug Court, an OWI Court was instituted in 2006 as traditional incarceration, license revocation and high fines had proven ineffective in preventing the epidemic of drunken driving. Zollweg conducted an evaluation of the OWI Court in 2009. He noted that repeat offenders with three or more OWI convictions dropped by 24 percent over the first three years of the program. This trend continued, with repeat convictions dropping from 174 in 2005 (before the OWI Court), to 108 in 2008 and 80 in 2011.

In addition to reducing recidivism, treatment courts are far less costly than incarceration. The county’s finance department shows that it cost $122.93 each day to incarcerate an individual. Treatment courts, on the other hand, cost less than $25 per day. This is a significant savings to La Crosse County taxpayers.

Our new jail addition is already filled to capacity, and county taxpayers would be forced to pay an additional $400,000 each year in staffing costs if a new pod is opened.

To be sure, treatment courts are not a magic bullet. Some are sentenced to jail or prison, and others fail and serve time in jail or prison. However, the courts have proven to be a more effective and less costly way of changing the behavior of those who commit crimes related to addiction.

The police chief said that drug offenders are arrested and released in a day or two. This is a function of bail, which is guaranteed by the constitution. Wisconsin law further provides that bail shall be set “only in the amount found necessary to assure the appearance of the defendant.”

Bail cannot be used as punishment, and it certainly cannot be used to keep a person in custody if his or her appearance is otherwise assured.

Similar to the bail, sentencing discretion is controlled by law. Courts are required to weigh and balance the gravity of the offense against the character of the offender and the needs of the community.

Prison incarceration is necessary for many offenders, but judges must sentence each offender individually. This requires that judges distinguish small-scale, addicted dealers from large-scale, for-profit dealers; offenders who commit minor property crimes to support their habit from those who commit assaultive street crimes; and those with lengthy criminal histories and prior incarcerations from first-time offenders. Sentencing can never be a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

La Crosse County leaders — judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation and parole agents, treatment providers, human services and law enforcement — have a long tradition of sitting down together to find ways to better serve our community. We welcome the new chief to a seat at that table and look forward to establishing a united front against the problems our community faces.

This column also was endorsed by La Crosse County circuit judges Ramona Gonzalez, Elliot Levine and Todd Bjerke, along with retired judges

John Perlich, Dennis Montabon and Michael Mulroy.

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