Walworth County considers criminal diversion program

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staff, Gazette
Monday, April 8, 2013

— A number of Wisconsin counties have pre-trial diversion programs, often aimed at first offenders facing misdemeanor crimes. The accused in these cases completes a program designed to keep them from re-offending, rather than go to prison.

District Attorney Daniel Necci now wants to add Walworth County to that list.

Necci says putting such a program in place could keep first-time offenders from becoming “frequent fliers” in the criminal justice system, tying up resources and money while they’re stuck in the revolving doors of the criminal justice system.

“It’s not so much trial diversion as criminal career diversion,” Necci said. “We’re trying to cut those people off, and put them on the right path before they’re here for their fifth, sixth, seventh time.”

To do that, Necci’s office applied for and won an $80,000 grant from the state Office of Justice Assistance it could use to hire a lawyer to manage such a program.

It would be aimed at low-risk offenders charged with misdemeanor crimes—people who deserve to be charged and punished, but don’t need to spend time in prison, according to the grant application.

If a program is completed, an offender could see their charges reduced or dismissed.

Along the way, the application said, the individual would avoid the negative consequences of being incarcerated with higher-risk offenders and the root causes of their crime could be treated.

“Rather than judging the case on the charge, (we’re) judging it on the person and trying to address some of the issues that brought them before us for the first time,” Necci said.

Today the idea is still in its infancy.

Necci said he wants to work with county officials, law enforcement and residents to see if they also want a pre-trial diversion program, and how they would like to see it work.

It will be up for discussion next at an April 19 meeting of the Walworth County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

An example in Rock County

While Necci declined to speculate about the kinds of offenses the program would address, Rock County’s deferred prosecution program gives an idea of what could be in store for Walworth County.

Deferred prosecution in Rock County is aimed at low-risk first offenders who commit such misdemeanor crimes as drug possession, damage to property or theft, according to Kristin Koeffler, who oversees it in Rock County.

Prosecutors decide whether or not to offer the program to an offender, Koeffler said, who then goes through a custom program that could include drug rehabilitation or therapy.

“There’s a number of people you can see need help,” she said. “They need a structure where they’re accountable, and there’s a carrot and a stick.”

Between 160 and 180 people go through deferred prosecution each year in Rock County, Koeffler said. They get help and pay restitution, she said, but finishing the program means they don’t face jail time and don’t leave with a criminal conviction hanging over their heads.

Broad support

Although a lot of details need to be worked out, the idea of a new way to treat some Walworth County offenders seems to enjoy support from a number of important sides.

From a budget perspective, Walworth County Administrator David Bretl said finding a responsible solution that keeps people out of prison can save governments and taxpayers a lot of money. It could also prove more effective, he said.

Assistant Public Defender Travis Schwantes said he is happy to see a program that is designed to treat the causes of crime more effectively, rather than just putting people in jail for as long as possible.

“You can lock people up for most offenses for a long time—lock them all up for the maximum penalty,” Schwantes said. “But they’re going to come right back to the community that they are from.

“What do we want them to be like when they come back?”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the criminal history of Fontaine Walker. He had been convicted multiple times before receiving an 18-month sentence for petty theft in Walworth County. That history likely would have made Walker ineligible for any pre-trial diversion programs.

Last updated: 10:28 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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