Making the Criminal Justice System “Visible” |
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Making the Criminal Justice System “Visible”

Fellows Forum

In “Visible Prisons / Invisible People” (Wisconsin People & Ideas, Summer 2011) Sister Esther Heffernan posits that “[w]e are in the middle of a crisis,” with prisons “more visible today than ever before,” but filled with a large “invisible” population. According to Sister Heffernan, a widely respected leader in the areas of peace and social justice (and, like me, a Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy), this invisible population is “not easily noticed”—that is to say, those persons who come into contact with the criminal justice system and are ultimately incarcerated disappear into the system.

The U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world. Here in Wisconsin, however, our court system is taking notice of those persons who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Taking notice is not an easy process when practices are steeped in tradition and long-standing beliefs.

There is no question that prison is essential for many offenders. As Sister Esther Heffernan acknowledges, “there are violent offenders and career criminals for whom there may be no other alternative than incarceration.” The public looks to the criminal justice system to maintain public safety and order, to hold accountable those who violate our laws, and to function in a fair manner.

The levels of incarceration, rising costs, and crime rates have placed significant financial and social burdens on our communities. Incarceration is expensive. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC) estimates that annual average cost to house a person in an adult penal institution is approximately $33,500. According to a December 9, 2011, WDOC report, at present there are 21,541 adults in Wisconsin prisons. That puts the total cost of incarceration at over $700 million a year. Furthermore, under the present system recidivism is very high.

We need to think about incarceration in a different way if we are going to break the cycle of criminal activity, incarceration, and recidivism to maintain public safety. Incarceration of some low-risk, non-violent offenders may not be necessary for public safety; offenders may do better under diversion and alternative programs. The American Bar Association’s Justice Kennedy Commission has recommended that “lengthy periods of incarceration should be reserved for offenders who pose the greatest danger to the community and who commit the most serious offenses and that alternatives to incarceration should be available to less serious offenders.” (See The Justice Kennedy Commission Report with Recommendations, Report to the ABA House of Delegates, iii. August 2004).

Taking notice of the need for changes and improvements in our criminal justice system, the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Planning and Policy Advisory Committee, which is popularly known as PPAC, formed a subcommittee in 2004 for Effective Justice Strategies. This subcommittee is tasked with “explor[ing] and assess[ing] the effectiveness of policies and programs, including drug and other specialty courts, designed to improve public safety and reduce incarceration.” As a result, our circuit court judges and court staff have joined with justice system partners to develop collaborative efforts and strategies in the counties to protect public safety, reduce crime and recidivism, prevent future victimization, and ease rising costs. Our justice system partners include county boards, county executives, the Wisconsin Counties Association, law enforcement, district attorneys, public defenders, treatment professionals, victim advocates, human services, corrections, employers, community representatives, and educators.

Justice system partners are working to break the cycle of addiction and recidivism by developing new practices to assess offenders for alcohol and other drug problems and for mental health problems, and address the needs of these offenders through alternative and supplemental approaches to confinement. Examples of these practices include bail-monitoring programs, drug court treatment programs, alcohol and OWI court programs, mental health court programs, electronic monitoring programs, deferred prosecution programs, restorative justice programs, and first offender programs. For a discussion of effective justice strategies, see the online resources at the Wisconsin Court System, Court Programs, Effective Justice Strategies.

Collaboration between justice system partners is critical. Work together in the counties and at the state level, partners gain a better understanding of what actions and programs best address public safety and recurring criminal behavior. Using alternatives to and supplements to incarceration, partners can hold a person accountable for his or her criminal actions while connecting them with services that may be more effective in addressing criminal behavior.

I’d like to share with you some of the innovative collaborative programs going on in our state right now:

National Center for State Courts’ Study of Effective Justice Strategies in Wisconsin

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) is an independent, nonprofit organization that provides leadership and research, information services, education, and consulting focused on helping state courts—and courts around the world—plan and improve their administration of justice. In 2009 the Director of Wisconsin State Courts Office contracted with the NCSC to research effective justice strategies in Wisconsin. NCSC staff members are reviewing three current initiatives in several counties: the Assess, Inform, and Measure (AIM) pilot project; problem-solving courts; and criminal justice collaborating committees. The research project will identify the strategies and tools associated with these three initiatives that best enhance public safety, reduce recidivism, and address criminal and addictive behaviors.

The NCSC report with recommendations is expected in early 2012 and should enable the Wisconsin Court System to develop a statewide plan to improve responses and services. Additional information about the National Center for State Courts is available on their website.

AIM pilot project

The goal of the AIM pilot project is to provide circuit court judges in advance of a sentencing decision with valid and reliable information, based on specific assessment tools, about the offender’s risk to commit another crime and the offender’s needs related to criminal behavior. These risk- and needs-assessment tools assist with screening and placement of an offender, development of case management plans, and enrollment in treatment programs. More specifically, AIM is intended to assist the judge in determining when or whether it is appropriate and safe to use an alternative to incarceration such as community-based supervision and treatment. Counties participating in the AIM pilot project include Bayfield, Eau Claire, Iowa, La Crosse, Marathon, Milwaukee, and Portage.

Problem-solving courts

A wide range of special court programs, including drug courts, mental health courts, alcohol courts, and veterans courts, are being developed to address the underlying issues related to criminal behavior. These courts work with criminal justice partners and local service providers to provide treatment to the offenders while also holding them accountable for criminal actions and striving to improve public safety.

Problem-solving courts are demanding and challenging, but an offender’s participation is voluntary. One of the key components of problem-solving courts is the early identification of offenders who meet the problem-solving court’s eligibility criteria, which may include the type of offense charged, prior criminal history, and substance abuse or mental health issues. Problem-solving courts may also include the integration of treatment services with case processing, access to a continuum of treatment and rehabilitation services, ongoing judicial interaction with each offender, and close monitoring of offender’s compliance or noncompliance with program requirements.

Research indicates that problem-solving courts and treatment programs work better than incarceration or treatment alone. Problem-solving courts are changing lives, reducing costs, and helping to improve public safety. Further information and a list of over forty problem-solving courts in Wisconsin are available here.

The Chief Justice’s Criminal Justice Mental Health Leadership Initiative, a nationwide project sponsored by the Council of State Governments, is an example of the problem-solving approach to criminal justice. I formed a special task force comprised of judges, county board members and county executives, sheriffs, jail administrators, police chiefs, state legislators, district attorneys, public defenders, Department of Corrections and Department of Health Service’s staff, county departments of health services, doctors, hospital administrators, and mental health treatment providers. The task force compiled a list of programs and initiatives operating across the state and identified best practices of evidence-based, cost-effective interventions that could improve the criminal justice system’s responses to persons with mental illness. The task force’s comprehensive report also highlighted the gaps in the criminal justice and mental health systems that hinder our ability to deal fairly, efficiently, and effectively with the special issues that arise when persons with mental illness come into contact with the criminal justice system and provided recommendations for improving responses to persons with mental illness.

County Criminal Justice Collaborating Councils

Courts and criminal justice system partners continue to create local or regional criminal justice collaborating councils to help resolve justice system and public safety issues in their communities. The councils function as a forum where local justice system professionals and community leaders come together and focus on criminal justice system improvements and initiatives. Comprised of judges, law enforcement, county board member, county executive or administrator, county human services, corrections, public defender, district attorney, clerk of court, and public members, these councils may establish goals that provide a better understanding of crime and criminal justice system problems, improve cooperation among justice system partners and local government, create problem-solving courts, implement risk and needs assessment tools, and develop criminal justice strategies that enhance public safety and address criminal and addictive behaviors.

Because the policy- and decision-makers of the local justice system are included in the process, councils can better assess the needs of the local criminal justice system and develop appropriate programming and practices in response to these needs. Further information about criminal justice collaborating councils and a directory of the more than thirty councils in Wisconsin are available here.

Evidence-Based Decision Making in Criminal Justice Systems

“Evidence-based” practices use research to guide decisions throughout the criminal justice system. Empirical research has been and is being undertaken to study the factors that contribute to criminal reoffending, to study criminal justice practices that can interrupt the cycle of criminal behaviors, and to improve on decision-making in the criminal justice process. Outcomes and findings from this research indicate which programs actually improve public safety, reduce recidivism, and address the needs of victims and offenders.

The Wisconsin Court System’s focus on evidence-based decision making continues to expand. At the state level, the Office of Judicial Education has developed training programs for judges on the use of evidence-based practices in decision making. At the local level, both Milwaukee and Eau Claire counties are nationally recognized leaders in their efforts to develop a framework for evidence-based decision making.

In 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court—in collaboration with the Office of Judicial Education, Physicians and Lawyers for National Drug Policy at Brown University, and the Johnson Foundation—hosted a Wingspread Conference for judges, court staff, and others from state agencies and the medical profession that featured a training program entitled, “The Need for Evidence-Based Practices to More Effectively Address Substance Abuse Problems in the Justice System.” This conference laid the foundation for the statewide workshop on evidence-based practices held the next year.

The 2009 workshop, entitled “Stop the Revolving Door: Evidence-Based Responses to Drug and Alcohol Use,” brought together 450 professionals, including judges, court commissioners, clerk of court, social workers, alcohol and other drug counselors, district attorneys, public defenders, and probation officers.

These various initiatives over the past few several years have spurred the Wisconsin Courts System to make evidence-based practices a part of everyday programming.

Eau Claire and Milwaukee - National Grants

In August 2011, Milwaukee and Eau Claire counties were awarded federal grants to assist them in the development of evidence-based decision-making practices in their criminal justice systems. A goal is to identify how and when we can make better decisions—from arrest through final disposition and discharge.

Milwaukee and Eau Claire counties are two of three jurisdictions selected nationwide through a competitive grant program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. The federal grants provide technical assistance to improve decision making at key points in the criminal-justice process. The awards recognize the years of hard work and commitment as the counties assessed their practices and programs, planned, and identified areas for change. Both Milwaukee and Eau Claire counties benefited from self-study and a strong, coordinated network of criminal justice partners who worked together toward goals of fewer victims and a safer community. Their belief in the adoption of evidence-based decision making practices will continue to improve their responses to persons who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Milwaukee County plans to implement four projects focused on decision making: (1) expand a training program for Milwaukee police officers in how to respond to people with mental illness, (2) improve use of risk and needs information to identify cases for diversion or deferred prosecution, (3) adopt more rigorous risk and needs management of pretrial population and identify persons who should be released without bail in advance of the disposition of the case, and (4) adopt a “dosage-based” probation plan that focuses on providing people with drug addictions specified amounts of treatment rather than probation for specific periods.

Eau Claire’s efforts are focused on reducing recidivism and improving the use of its resources. Eau Claire County’s goal is to reduce by 20% the number of low- and medium-risk offenders who are convicted of committing new crimes within three years of initial contact with the criminal justice system; and to reduce by 10% the number of high-risk offenders. For example, the county may consider implementing a pretrial release process using screening and risk assessment tools, and a pre-charging deferral program for some low-risk offenders who may be appropriately placed in programs outside of jail. In addition, the Eau Claire team will focus on the use of assessment tools that provide judges with more information about the risks posed by, and needs of, an offender. The team also plans to reduce jail bed days and incarceration levels by improving the allocation of its resources.

“That both Eau Claire and Milwaukee counties were chosen for these awards is reflective of what they have been able to accomplish, which not many other jurisdictions across the United States have achieved,” said Lori Eville, the Bureau of Prisons specialist who manages the grant program and who participated in the five-person federal panel that selected the winners. “Wisconsin can be very, very proud. What is being done there will be taught across the nation.”

The Wisconsin Court System and its criminal justice system partners will continue to develop and expand programs focused on improving the criminal justice system throughout the state to increase public safety, reduce crime, ease rising costs and prevent future victimization. The number of effective justice strategies in process and the level of collaboration demonstrated in so many counties in Wisconsin are a testament to our commitment to make systemic changes and develop a statewide strategy for building evidence-based practices and problem-solving strategies, and for measuring outcomes.

There are many approaches and no single “silver bullet” solution. The court system and its criminal justice partners have made a start and are making progress. But many challenges await.

This article was created in collaboration with Theresa Owens, executive assistant to the Chief Justice.

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Shirley S. Abrahamson was appointed as a Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976. She was the first and only woman to serve on the court until 1993. She was elected to a ten-year term in 1979, re-elected in 1989, and became Chief Justice on August 1, 1996.

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