After flying in national drug court experts to give a training and mediate a discussion, some Walworth County officials wanted to leave Wednesday knowing if drug treatment court will continue or not.
But there was no resolution after the daylong session, which at times became contentious as some officials sought specific answers from District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld, who said he might withdraw his support of the program.
The experts from New York and Oregon came as part of the National Drug Court Institute. After offering coaching on communication skills, they suggested meeting to go over specific tasks within an agreed-upon time.
In coming days and weeks, Wiedenfeld and the county’s four judges will meet during lunch to hammer out where the DA stands on a list of 16 concerns he detailed in late 2017.
From there, the parties are expected to work on a more explicit memorandum of understanding.
But some participants stressed they wanted Wednesday’s meeting to be about finding that resolution, not kicking the can farther down the road—especially with grant funding in question in the near future.
“We’re all beating around the bush here,” said Walworth County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell. “So I am extremely concerned about that because I think that we’re sacrificing people who need our help. That’s the most important thing … there are people whose lives are at risk.
The Walworth County Executive Committee unanimously passed a resolution Monday supporting the county’s treatment court programs, which the district attorney has recently called into question.
“I cannot understand why we wasted a whole day here when we’re going to end up exactly in the same place we were—only maybe worse than we were before.”
She said the high-risk and high-need candidates for drug court, the ones who are most successful in these programs, are the ones not getting in.
Referrals to drug court have decreased over time, and the program is not at its grant-funded capacity of 25 participants.
The heart of the matter, which has been debated publicly through the county’s criminal justice coordinating committee over the last six months, is Wiedenfeld’s desire for more explicit criteria over who can and cannot enter drug court.
He has said he has safety concerns without such eligibility criteria.
Mackenzie Renner, who leads Walworth County’s assistant public defenders, said many people who are turned away from drug court end up with probation anyway, which features less-strict supervision than treatment court.
That means less safety for the community, she said.
Some of the county’s judges tried to confirm where Wiedenfeld stood on withdrawing his office from the program.
“If we sentence somebody (to drug court) over your objection, are you still going to pull out?” Judge David Reddy asked the DA.
“I would say that I would consider it,” Wiedenfeld responded.
“You know, what’s frustrating is you’re not answering the question,” the judge said. “That’s what’s frustrating.”
But Wiedenfeld went on to say his considerations are context specific, even as judges and others tried to nail down answers clarifying perceived objections to certain participants, such as those who make meth or commit crimes involving victims.
After hearing the DA respond indirectly to a different question from Clerk of Courts Kristina Secord, Reddy said it sounded like a “no.” Judge Daniel Johnson, who currently oversees drug court, said, “If it’s a ‘no,’ it’s a ‘no.’”
Two Walworth County judges who were once unsure of where they stood on treatment courts on Friday shared positive impacts they have seen from the programs.
Wiedenfeld said his answers will be fact-driven—which to Johnson sounded like a “yes,” that the DA would be open to allowing drug-driven offenses into the program.
Wiedenfeld said not necessarily. He said saying “yes” or “no” now “isn’t the right way to go about it.”
Wednesday’s event was held at Adams Electric in Elkhorn. The morning consisted of training. At about noon, Mark Anthony Violante, a judge in Niagara Falls, New York, spoke to the group about who succeeds in drug court.
Violante said he has more often seen contention around drunken-driving treatment courts than drug courts, although the opposite is the case in Walworth County.
After lunch, Wiedenfeld met away from the group with the other expert at Wednesday’s meeting, John Haroldson, a DA in Oregon’s Benton County.
Reddy said Wiedenfeld should be in the room during the discussion and asked Violante why he was gone. The New York judge said Wiedenfeld was discussing concerns with Haroldson privately.
Upon their return about 90 minutes later, Haroldson said the two could talk about “prosecution-focused” matters.
At the meeting’s closing, Haroldson said he thought everyone wanted the best possible outcome, and everyone should not lose sight of that.
“You’re all real good people,” Violante said.
And yet frustration, urgency and a lack of clarity were themes Wednesday.
“We’ve been going around this for a year now,” Renner said. “So it’s very frustrating to not have answers today and say we need to come back to the drawing table when our court is dying because we don’t have these answers.”