Walworth County’s district attorney has taken plea deals off the table for defendants who are screened for treatment court, a move that one judge said likely puts the program in peril.
At an April 14 meeting, Judge David Reddy said the “roadblocks” put up by District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld against drug court—one type of treatment court—also could have drastic effects on other programs, such as the pretrial services diversion program and OWI treatment court for intoxicated drivers.
“I think it’s a shame,” Reddy said. “I’ve been passionate about treatment courts from the beginning. I ran on, that was my platform that I ran on almost 12 years ago. And it’s just sad, the situation that we’re in.
“And really, Zeke, I put it on your shoulders.”
Wiedenfeld’s stance on the currently grant-funded drug court has frustrated other Walworth County Court officials for years. Those officials have praised the program’s ability to help defendants most in need of addiction treatment, while also saving the county money by keeping them from incarceration.
The county’s top prosecutor has said before that his concerns stem from wanting more explicit criteria for who can and cannot be a part of drug court.
He also has raised public safety as a reason for his stance, but others have argued that many who have been turned away from drug court eventually were given probation, which is less restrictive than the program.
Members of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee mentioned at their April 14 meeting that Wiedenfeld withdrew the DA’s office from treatment courts back in September.
But his office’s withdrawal does not mean it is not still having an effect on enrollment.
At the meeting, Reddy said he had a “very dire warning” for drug court, saying the program has only six participants. In the past, enrollment has been over 20.
The judge pointed to Wiedenfeld’s recent position on plea negotiations as a reason more people aren’t entering the program because “everything is off the table.”
One plea deal offer Wiedenfeld sent April 12 to Mackenzie Renner, the head of public defenders for the county, includes this note:
“Treatment Court Participation: Be advised that if the defendant is screened for a treatment court program and/or wishes to request or agree to a disposition involving participation in a treatment court program, this offer does not apply and the defendant will be required to plead guilty to all charges or have a trial.”
In response, Wiedenfeld said that language was included because defense attorneys were negotiating and “at the last minute” brought up their intentions to argue at sentencing for treatment court.
“The language in the offer letters is really to encourage up-front negotiating with defense attorneys,” he said, adding that “after the DA’s was removed” there was no clear eligibility on who could and could not be in the program.
“Now we’re more on the defensive in terms of how we negotiate cases because we don’t know who will be accepted or what incentives will be offered as part of a sentence,” he continued. “That’s where that language comes from. I don’t know if that’s an acceptable answer or not, but that’s how that came about.”
Reddy fired back, saying, “I interpret your response to say you don’t have control anymore, and this is how you’re maintaining control.”
“In terms of negotiating with defense attorneys, yes,” Wiedenfeld said.
“In terms of who gets in, yes,” Reddy said.
“No, in terms of negotiating,” Wiedenfeld said, clarifying that he was speaking more to the discussions around plea agreements.
A Walworth County committee is reorganizing itself in a move that might allow the group to more often meet in private outside the requirements of the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, which some experts disputed.
But Reddy said Renner, the public defender, was shaking her head.
“I think that Mr. Wiedenfeld is not being completely honest,” Renner said, adding that the language in the offers speaks for itself. “That does not open a door to negotiations. It shuts them down.”
She also said it was not true that treatment court was being brought up at the last minute, pointing to a recent case of her own in which it was mentioned repeatedly throughout the process.
Even if the judges broadly signal their support for treatment courts, Renner said it is “terrifying” for defendants to go into a sentencing feeling like they are rolling dice over whether they get into the program or go to prison.
That is true especially for high-risk and high-need defendants that treatment courts are designed to target because they likely are facing long prison sentences, she added.
Funding for the program this year was “basically guaranteed,” Reddy said. But next year, it is not.
“I don’t believe that the current state of the program would qualify for (the grant),” he said.
Reddy said the committee originally started to address overcrowding at the jail in the hope of avoiding spending millions of dollars to expand the facility. Treatment courts were one method to achieve that goal.
“It worked,” he said.
Clerk of Courts Kristina Secord said her rough estimate showed it would cost about $75,000 to continue the drug and alcohol testing that comes with these programs for six months after funding might end.
The last time Judge David Reddy oversaw a drug court hearing in July 2018, Hailey Beles made him a promise. On Thursday, she said, “I told you I’d be good,” as she graduated from the program.
Walworth County Administrator Mark Luberda said if the program lost its grant funding, he expects that the county and county board could find funds to help those in the program finish it. He was cautious not to make any guarantees.
“I always say I’d rather spend somebody else’s money before mine,” he said. “So if we could keep the grant going, I think that’s a good thing.”
The committee will meet again at 11:30 a.m. June 11.
“I’m putting everybody on notice,” Reddy said. “This is crunch time in terms of keeping the program together.”
The state Department of Justice has launched a sweeping investigation of sexual assault in Catholic churches and orders across Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul announced Tuesday.
Kaul, a Democrat, said during a news conference that he wants to develop a full picture of clergy sexual abuse over the decades. He said the goal is transparency and a full accounting and that his investigators will refer any new cases to prosecutors.
Officials in at least 22 other states have opened investigations into sexual misconduct within church hierarchies. Clergy sexual abuse survivors and their allies have long demanded that Kaul open a probe.
“I know there are survivors, friends and family members of survivors, supporters of survivors who have waited for years for a fair and independent review of clergy and faith leader abuse in Wisconsin,” Kaul said. “And that’s what we are announcing today.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week that the review was coming. Kaul spoke with leaders of the state’s five Catholic dioceses Monday to let them know he would be requesting information from them. They pushed back against the review Tuesday morning.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, issued a statement saying the review could revictimize survivors and questioning why Kaul was targeting the Catholic Church.
“There is no evidence that the Church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, have not already taken all possible steps in addressing issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse,” he said. “We also do not understand the legal basis for the inquiry. We also question why only the Catholic Church is being singled out for this type of review when sexual abuse is a societal issue.”
The Diocese of La Crosse issued a statement saying Bishop William Patrick Callahan last year publicly released the names and details of clergy with confirmed allegations of child sexual abuse. If Kaul seeks information from the diocese, officials will evaluate whether he has the authority to request it and the impact on survivors’ privacy, the statement said.
Officials at the Diocese of Madison said they would also review any Kaul requests for information but that they take clergy sexual abuse “very seriously,” pointing to background checks, training on making environments safe and creating a review board. Officials with the Diocese of Green Bay issued a similar statement. A message left at the Diocese of Superior wasn’t immediately returned.
Kaul declined to elaborate on his tactics if the dioceses won’t turn over information. He repeatedly implored survivors to contact the DOJ and tell their stories to investigators, no matter how long ago the abuse took place. Those stories could provide the basis for search warrants.
Kaul said during his news conference that the review would extend to other faith leaders outside the Catholic Church if that’s where the facts lead. Still, he was flanked by Catholic clergy abuse survivors who praised him for undertaking the review.
“My family and I have been waiting years for this opportunity,” said Patricia Gallagher Marchant, who won a six-figure settlement from the Diocese of Madison in the early 1990s after she reported a priest at her parish in Monona abused her when she was 7 or 8 years old in the 1960s.
“Today, we’re asking survivors to speak about what’s unspeakable to them. You get to tell your story. Please, all of you call. Your story matters.”
The urge to breathe the free air of a post-pandemic world is a strong one, and the Janesville School Board was not immune from that desire Tuesday night.
The board voted to allow student football players and their coaches eight tickets for family and friends for the Parker-Craig football game scheduled Friday.
The limit had been two tickets for football, varsity soccer and track, and the change applies to those athletes and coaches, as well.
The administration on Tuesday asked the board to increase the number to four. Board member John Hanewall, in his first board meeting, suggested six to eight tickets, saying the crosstown rivalry game will likely be the highlight of the players’ season and that he would like to allow grandparents, for example, the opportunity to watch the youngsters play.
Hanewall said it is highly unlikely Monterey Stadium would be packed.
Board member Kevin Murray then moved to make the number unlimited for all sports. Hanewall supported Murray.
Board member Michelle Haworth said if the change is made, then the district would have to revisit restrictions placed on high school graduations. Garner agreed.
“I’m for opening it up a little more so we can start to feel a little more normal,” board member Karl Dommershausen said, but after several members voice concerns, Dommershausen proposed limiting tickets to eight per player.
Board member Lisa Hurda said lifting the limits could attract a lot of students, many of whom would not be vaccinated. She noted a recent Gazette story about a student who was still suffering “long haul” COVID-19 symptoms.
New board member Elizabeth Paull said lifting the limits would send mixed messages to students and that she would hate to have an outbreak caused by lax conditions.
The eight-ticket limit passed 8-1 with Murray voting no.
The motion specified that social distancing and masks for everyone would still be required, but Assistant Superintendent Scott Garner said the district doesn’t have the staff to enforce the rules, so they would have to be followed on “the honor system.”
In a separate motion, the board agreed 9-0 to leave future adjustments to COVID-19 sports rules to the administration. Garner said the administration would make adjustments by following the guidelines of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or local health departments.
In another COVID-19 vote, the board voted 9-0 to allow organizations such as youth sports clubs to use district facilities starting June 7. The organizations have been barred from district facilities.
The organizations may begin applying to use facilities May 13. They risk losing the privilege if they don’t follow Rock County Health Department and school district guidelines for group gatherings.
Members of the public are still banned from the previous practices of walking in high school fieldhouses and swimming laps in the pools.
Pandemic precautions were on the mind of Theresa Griffin, who asked to speak to the board but refused to wear a mask, district spokesman Patrick Gasper said.
Officials did not allow her to speak after she declined to wear a mask. Gasper said the district was following county health department guidance.
Griffin left a written statement in which she complained that her granddaughter got headaches from wearing a mask at school and claimed officials have no legal basis for requiring masks. She asked the district to make masks optional.
In other business, the board elected a new president, Cathy Myers, and vice president, Jim Millard, both without opposition. The board also voted for a new clerk, Michelle Haworth, and treasurer, Greg Ardrey, also without opposition.