Walworth County prosecutors are filing more criminal cases since District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld took office two years ago even though police are making fewer arrests, according to data analyzed by The Gazette.
Wiedenfeld said there’s no single reason criminal filings are the highest in 12 years, outpacing increases in the rest of the state. He said he encourages his prosecutors to fight for a “just result” in each case and to track down all possible witnesses or documents to prove a case.
He believes charging and sentencing deters future crime, and charges can hold people accountable in their efforts to find treatment.
Walworth County, Wiedenfeld said, has always been tough on crime.
“So I don’t know that I’m doing anything different,” he said.
Mackenzie Renner, who is in charge of Walworth County’s public defenders, said additional charges is a “resource question” for her office, the county jail, sheriff’s office and other services.
On a personal level, Renner said, charges have a “ripple effect.” People charged with crimes and held in jail while still presumed innocent can lose their jobs, housing or spots in treatment programs.
Families also feel the burden, Renner said.
“So it ends up being felt through the entire community around a person,” she said.
One expert said a prosecutor is a “gatekeeper” who makes decisions at a “pivotal point” in determining what happens to a person accused of committing a crime.
“Whether to charge and, if so, what charges to bring are both really important discretionary decisions that we entrust to the prosecutor,” said Cecelia Klingele, an assistant professor at the UW Law School.
The district attorney’s office filed 623 felony and 862 misdemeanor cases in 2017, up 19 percent and 25 percent respectively from the year before, according to data from the Walworth County Clerk of Courts Office.
That was more than double the statewide pace for felony filings, which rose 8 percent. Misdemeanor cases statewide increased 0.28 percent.
In 2018, Walworth County felony cases again rose nearly 8 percent to 671, and misdemeanor cases dropped nearly 10 percent to 778, still higher than any year since 2006.
The clerk of courts data goes back to 2000. Felony case filings were at their lowest in 2015 at 502, and the fewest misdemeanor cases were filed in 2014 at 445.
Wiedenfeld’s predecessor, Dan Necci, was DA from 2012 to 2016.
Phillip Koss was DA from 1990 to 2012, when he became a judge.
The local increase in criminal court filings comes while total arrests in Walworth County declined every year since 2013—when there were 6,434 arrests, according to the DOJ’s Uniform Crime Reporting data.
In 2017, Walworth County law enforcement made 5,319 arrests, finishing a 17 percent decline over five years. The state Department of Justice has not yet listed data for 2018.
Wiedenfeld said he has no quotas for his prosecutors.
He said he has encouraged his assistant DAs to work more closely with police to avoid any quick decisions to decline cases.
“The guideline for them is to do the right thing, not always the easy thing,” Wiedenfeld said. “Because I think the easiest thing for any prosecutor to do is to find a reason not to charge something.”
Wiedenfeld said his goal is to reduce crime. He also emphasized the importance of victims having a “voice” in the system.
Experts in the criminal justice field have pointed to recidivism rates and emphasized the need to address the root causes of criminality by treating mental health or substance abuse.
Wiedenfeld, who agreed treatment is good, said confinement and a forced period of sobriety can be necessary for some who have tried and failed treatment and still are committing crimes.
Charges also can initiate required treatment or community service, he said.
Wiedenfeld recently questioned his office’s role in the county’s treatment court programs, saying he wanted to solidify his control over who can and cannot enter the programs. This cast the programs’ future into question because others said the DA’s support of the program was essential.
County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell at a Feb. 5 meeting said taxpayers would not be happy if treatment courts ended because they saved so much money.
But when asked about the criminal justice system’s price tag, Wiedenfeld said last week the system is not a business. It is not designed to make a profit, and it’s hard to measure the value of preventing crime.
Sometimes, a plea agreement is a just result when a defendant accepts responsibility, but Wiedenfeld said it’s not his office’s job to settle cases, a philosophy that can lead to more trials.
Walworth County was near the top of the state in number of jury trials before Wiedenfeld took over.
And then there was a spike.
The number of felony and misdemeanor jury trials more than doubled, from 23 in 2016 to 53 in 2017.
There were another 55 jury trials in 2018, according to the clerk of courts office.
Speaking generally, Klingele, the expert on criminal law and criminal justice policy, said a large number of jury trials can mean offers on the table during negotiations are not perceived as fair, or cases are being brought using evidence defendants want to challenge.
She said other possibilities could be at play, too.
There is “tremendous variation” in how DAs across the country and state see their roles, Klingele said. Some trend toward collaboration with other agencies, which can hold defendants accountable, minimize their time behind bars and still address root causes of criminal behavior.
Someone in a mental health crisis might technically fit the definition of disorderly conduct. Someone with substance abuse problems could be violating the law, she said.
“It is certainly the case that all kinds of behaviors that are sometime classified as criminal can also be classified in other ways,” she said.
Convictions have “collateral consequences left and right,” Renner said. For example, there’s limited access to financial aid, which can close off education opportunities, which then limit job prospects.
“It makes it more difficult to better yourself in our community,” she said.
She said she fully supports treatment courts and other diversion programs that more effectively get at the “underlying” problems. She agreed with Wiedenfeld in one area—that charges can serve as incentives for her clients.
Renner also pointed the county’s limited resources.
Kristina Secord, the county’s clerk of courts, said they have “really felt the congestion” on the court’s status hearings for misdemeanor and felony cases.
Her office saw an increase in overtime hours from 1,554 in 2016 to 1,897 in 2017. She attributed the increase in part to more criminal cases but also to the switch to electronic filing. Overtime hours went down to 1,240 in 2018, which is still a few hundred hours higher than any year from 2012-2015.
“Now, we’re really trying to figure out how we can avoid people getting burned out,” she said, adding they don’t want to add another staff member, but they “may have to look at” it.
Not every district attorney holds the same philosophy as Wiedenfeld.
During a January interview for a different story, Rock County DA David O’Leary said locking up people won’t alone solve their mental health needs or drug addiction problems.
“The overall picture of just locking people up and thinking that solves your problems is ignorant and naïve,” he said.
O’Leary was not talking about Walworth County, and instead was discussing the difficulty of prosecuting drug cases.
Difficulties aside, prosecution is not always the right answer, he said.
He said while politicians are re-elected for being tough on crime, “the reality” is everyone needs to be “smart on crime.” This can divert defendants out of the criminal justice system and help them break the cycle of recidivism.
Renner said her preferred method—more reliance on treatment and other diversion programs and less incarceration brought on by serious criminal charges—should lead to the same goal Wiedenfeld has.
“I think it creates a safer community,” she said. “And ultimately costs the community less in taxpayer dollars.”
One of the “greatest benefits” of Renner’s job is getting to know her clients as human beings based on more than what landed them in trouble.
“They can get through this,” she said, “and still live a productive life.”
A U.S.-backed campaign to force President Nicolas Maduro from power met strong resistance Saturday from Venezuelan security forces who fired tear gas on protesters trying to deliver humanitarian aid from Colombia and Brazil, leaving two people dead and some 300 injured.
Throughout the turbulent day, as police and protesters squared off on two bridges connecting Venezuela to Colombia, opposition leader Juan Guaido made repeated calls for the military to join him in the fight against Maduro’s “dictatorship.” Colombian authorities said more than 60 soldiers answered his call, deserting their posts in often-gripping fashion, though most were lower in rank and didn’t appear to dent the higher command’s continued loyalty to Maduro’s socialist government.
In one dramatic high point, a group of activists led by exiled lawmakers managed to escort three flatbed trucks of aid past the halfway point into Venezuela when they were repelled by security forces. In a flash the cargo caught fire, with some eyewitnesses claiming the National Guardsmen doused a tarp covering the boxes with gas before setting it on fire. As a black cloud rose above, the activists—protecting their faces from the fumes with vinegar-soaked cloths—unloaded the boxes by hand in a human chain stretching back to the Colombian side of the bridge.
“They burned the aid and fired on their own people,” said 39-year-old David Hernandez, who was hit in the forehead with a tear gas canister that left a bloody wound and growing welt. “That’s the definition of dictatorship.”
For weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and its regional allies have been amassing emergency food and medical supplies on three of Venezuela’s borders with the aim of launching a “humanitarian avalanche.” It comes exactly one month after Guaido, in a direct challenge to Maduro’s rule, declared himself interim president at an outdoor rally.
Even as the 35-year-old lawmaker has won the backing of more than 50 governments around the world, he has so far been unable to cause a major rift inside the military—Maduro’s last-remaining plank of support in a country ravaged by hyperinflation and widespread shortages.
Amid the standoff, Guaido was turning to diplomatic actions.
As night fell, he refrained from asking supporters to continue risking their lives and make another attempt to break the government’s barricades. Instead, he said he would meet U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Monday in Colombia’s capital at an emergency meeting of mostly conservative Latin American governments to discuss Venezuela’s crisis.
But he did make one last appeal to troops.
“How many of you national guardsmen have a sick mother? How many have kids in school without food?” he asked, standing alongside a warehouse in the Colombian city of Cucuta where 600 tons of mostly U.S.-supplied boxes of food and medicine have been stockpiled. “You don’t owe any obedience to a sadist ... who celebrates the denial of humanitarian aid the country needs.”
Earlier, Maduro struck a defiant tone, breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia, accusing its “fascist” government of serving as a staging ground for a U.S.-led effort to oust him from power and possibly a military invasion.
“My patience has run out,” Maduro said, speaking at a massive rally of red-shirted supporters in Caracas and giving Colombian diplomats 24 hours to leave the country.
Clashes started Saturday well before Guaido straddled a semi truck and waved to supporters in a ceremonial send-off of the aid convoy from Cucuta. In the Venezuelan border town of Urena, residents began removing yellow metal barricades and barbed wire blocking the Santander bridge. Some were masked youth who threw rocks and later commandeered a city bus and set it afire.
“We’re tired. There’s no work, nothing,” Andreina Montanez, 31, said as she sat on a curb recovering from the sting of tear gas used to disperse the crowd.
The single mom said she lost her job as a seamstress in December and had to console her 10-year-old daughter’s fears that she would be left orphaned when she decided to join Saturday’s protest.
“I told her I had to go out on the streets because there’s no bread,” she said. “But still, these soldiers are scary. It’s like they’re hunting us.”
At the Simon Bolivar bridge, a group of aid volunteers in blue vests calmly walked up to a police line and shook officers’ hands, appealing for them to join their fight.
But the goodwill was fleeting and a few hours later the volunteers were driven back with tear gas, triggering a stampede.
At least 60 members of security forces, most of them lower-ranked soldiers, deserted and took refuge inside Colombia, according to migration officials. One was a National Guard major. Colombian officials said 285 people were injured, most left with wounds caused by tear gas and metal pellets that Venezuelan security forces fired.
A video provided by Colombian authorities shows three soldiers at the Simon Bolivar bridge wading through a crowd with their assault rifles and pistols held above their heads in a sign of surrender. The young soldiers were then ordered to lie face down on the ground as migration officials urged angry onlookers to keep a safe distance.
“I’ve spent days thinking about this,” said one of the soldiers, whose identity was not immediately known. He called on his comrades to join him: “There is a lot of discontent inside the forces but also lots of fear.”
Guaido, who has offered amnesty to soldiers who join the opposition’s fight, applauded their bravery, saying it was a sign that support for Maduro was crumbling. Later, he greeted five of the military members, who in turn offered a salute, calling the opposition leader Venezuela’s “constitutional president” and their commander in chief.
“They aren’t deserters,” Guaido said. “They’ve decided to put themselves on the side of the people and the constitution. ... The arrival of liberty and democracy to Venezuela can’t be detained.”
Analysts warn that there might be no clear victor and humanitarian groups have criticized the opposition as using the aid as a political weapon.
“Today marked a further blow to the Maduro regime, but perhaps not the final blow that Guaido, the U.S. and Colombia were hoping for,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “Threats and ultimatums from Washington directed to the generals may not be the best way to get them to flip. In fact, they are likely to have the opposite effect.”
International leaders, including U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, are appealing for the sides to avoid violence. But at least two people were killed and another 21 injured in the town of Santa Elena de Uairen, near the border with Brazil, according to local health officials.
The opposition planned to hold three simultaneous aid pushes on Saturday. Aside from Colombia, they also had hoped to deliver humanitarian assistance by sea and through Venezuela’s remote border with Brazil, which Maduro ordered closed.
Amid the sometimes-chaotic and hard-to-verify flow of information, opposition lawmakers and Guaido said the first shipment of humanitarian aid had crossed into Venezuela from Brazil—although reports from the ground revealed that two trucks carrying the aid had only inched up to the border itself.
Dueling demonstrations also took place in the capital. Government opponents, waving American flags and one of them dressed like Captain America in a nod to the Trump administration’s prominent role cornering Maduro, headed toward an air base. With the opposition mostly mobilized along the border, a much larger mass of red-shirted government supporters, some of them on motorcycles, filled streets downtown.
Venezuela’s military has served as the traditional arbiter of political disputes in the South American country, and in recent weeks, top leaders have pledged their unwavering loyalty to Maduro.
But that hasn’t discouraged young protesters like Juan David Candiales.
The 17-year-old said he sneaked out of his family’s home in Venezuela last week to help bring in the aid. Despite being shot four times in the leg with metal pellets, he raced back to the burned aid trucks late Saturday to square off with National Guardsmen one more time.
“I have to keep going back—because this is the country where I was born, and it pains me,” he said. “If we can be here all night, we will be here all night. I’m not going home until humanitarian aid is let into Venezuela.”
Diane G. Brinkman
William R. “Bill” DeCremer
Julie Ann Farnsworth
Keith August Fiedler
Gerald L. “Jerry” Forst
Michael J. Getchell
Diana L. Gleason
Marvin L. Heller
Dale M. Jensen Sr.
Jeanette J. Larson
La Verne E. Luchsinger Sr.
Jon “Jerry” O’Leary
John W. Reiff Jr.
James R. Steele
Virginia Louise Williams
Shirley Jane (Bidwell) Wilson
Jean H. Ylvisaker
Known as Deputy Khone, Viengkhone Nouansacksy is one of several armed deputies assigned to the Rock County Courthouse.
He spends his entire shift at the building. During a typical day, Nouansacksy might monitor the courthouse’s nearly 200 security cameras, mediate contentious meetings and check in on the offices.
“My own philosophy in working here is to preserve the peace,” he said. “Preserve the peace for the employees and the judges and the citizens.”
Conversations about courthouse security have swirled since the Rock County Board’s General Services Committee tabled a resolution last week that would have armed security guards at the building’s second-floor screening station.
The guards are contracted through Iowa-based Global Security Services. While they will remain unarmed for now, sheriff’s deputies, such as Nouansacksy, and some bailiffs in the building are armed.
Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson said the growing conversation about courthouse security is crucial, and he lauded the county board.
“I absolutely applaud our administrator, Josh Smith, and our county board members,” Knudson said. “We’ve decided that, because of the threats that exist in our society now, we need to improve our security at our courthouse in a proactive manner.
“I think there’s a bigger discussion that needs to take place, and I think it’s a critical discussion.”
Knudson said courthouse security is split into three categories: the security screening station with private guards, Rock County Sheriff’s Office deputies and courtroom bailiffs.
The Rock County Sheriff’s Office operates separately from the third-party guards and bailiffs. Knudson said the amount of deputies at the courthouse varies on a given day.
Some deputies are specifically assigned to perform patrol-style functions at the building, such as escorting inmates to a courtroom. Knudson said the deputies would be able to respond to an emergency.
The courthouse deputies undergo normal deputy training, which includes active shooter response. Knudson said the courthouse unit was trained together last year particularly to address emergency situations at the courthouse.
Along with sheriff’s deputies, some courthouse bailiffs are armed. Knudson said each bailiff works for an individual judge and provides courtroom security. He said bailiffs do not work for the sheriff’s office, but they could potentially respond to an imminent threat.
Knudson said communication and coordinating responses between the three separate security units can be tricky.
“I think we can all sort of envision a large incident that occurs, and by having each of those different levels of security reporting to a different person, (it) may add some inefficiencies to the response,” Knudson said.
“If all those layers of security personnel were operating under one entity, you could ensure the training was the same.”
Knudson said the $5.2 million security overhaul at the courthouse approved by the county board last year will prep the building for a large-scale security threat. The renovations include a new security screening station at the building’s main west-side entrance, which is currently under construction.
Knudson said security guards would be at disadvantage if a threat were to enter the building. He supports arming them, he said, and would feel more comfortable if sheriff’s deputies managed the station.
Similarly, he said looping all security branches under the sheriff’s office wing is a worthwhile discussion. But he understands concerns about being “fiscally conservative,” he said, and realizes consolidating security could be expensive.
The sheriff’s office likely would hire deputies to work at the security screening station. A memo to the general services committee estimated hiring sheriff’s deputies would cost about $176,000 this year. Knudson said sheriff’s office financial staff will estimate the costs again.
Rock County Administrator Josh Smith said officials have discussed hiring sheriff’s office personnel for the security station for years. He said there would be a greater comfort level with deputies but cost is the primary concern.
Knudson echoed Smith, saying some in the community have said they are more at ease with sheriff’s deputies at the station.
“If these concerns are out there, that’s something that’s going to need to be addressed and studied. We need to get everybody’s input and then make a decision,” Knudson said. “What are we really trying to accomplish with these layers of security, and how can we best do it, and what is the cost? Does the cost outweigh the concerns, or do the concerns outweigh the cost? That’s the decision that has to be made.”