When Walworth County Judge Daniel Johnson was a court commissioner, he did not think favorably of treatment courts.
Something about them seemed counterintuitive, he thought. They were not punishing people who committed crimes; they were trying to treat them.
He said he was “a little trepidatious” about taking over the county’s drug treatment court, but he accepted and started in August.
His feelings have changed since then.
“There’s just a strong sense of humanity that goes on in drug court,” Johnson said Friday. “We really have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of some of these significant obstacles that people have and help them.”
Friday’s meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee in Elkhorn was the first since a special session Feb. 5, when District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld signaled he might withdraw his office’s support of treatment courts.
The county’s top prosecutor has questioned the level of control his office has over who enters the treatment programs. While his departure alone would not signify the programs’ end, others on the committee said they would not support them without the DA’s office.
The judge who oversees all of the treatment courts, David Reddy, said at the February meeting only two of the 69 drug treatment court candidates entered the program against a recommendation from the DA’s office.
Wiedenfeld, who responded by saying he wanted to be proactive, did not elaborate on his position Friday but detailed the next steps for a subcommittee exploring his concerns.
The advisory committee met Feb. 15, but Reddy said everything was not resolved. He said he wrote a memo on the judge’s inability to delegate discretion, and Wiedenfeld responded with a memo of his own.
Wiedenfeld said he would draft proposed language for the group to consider in the next two weeks, when it meets again.
While Johnson said he is not willing to “give up the farm,” he would make compromises and changes to keep the program running.
“I really do think that drug court is critical and necessary to the community right now, and I do really feel like it would be a shame for it to go away,” he said.
Wiedenfeld said he was more concerned about drug court than OWI court because the latter has more explicit eligibility criteria.
Judge Kristine Drettwan praised the treatment program that helps repeat intoxicated drivers. The former prosecutor said she was hesitant when she assumed oversight of the program in August.
“I can’t believe how much I have become invested in these people,” she said.
“I think we are changing lives,” she later said. “I can see it even in the last six, seven months.”
Treatment Court Coordinator Katie Behl said 18 active participants are currently in OWI court, which can hold up to 45. Drug court has 15 participants and is able to hold 25.
Behl said officials have received letters of support from past participants—both those who graduated and those who were terminated—and from treatment providers.
The full committee is scheduled to meet again at 11:30 a.m. June 14.