The future of Walworth County’s treatment courts is uncertain after District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld at a special meeting Tuesday questioned his office’s participation in the programs and its level of control over who enters them.
Wiedenfeld told other members of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee that his concerns are a matter of public safety. But his statements led other members of the committee to speak out in favor of the programs.
And while there were procedural challenges and debates about who gets into treatment courts, the human impact hangs over all of it.
In late 2016 and 2017, six people overdosed and died before entering drug treatment court after being made eligible for the program or after being denied entry and receiving different sentences, such as probation, said treatment court coordinator Katie Behl.
Meanwhile, there were open spots in the program that is grant-funded to fit 25 participants.
“It’s just… it’s tragic,” Behl said. “And it’s not to say it’s anyone’s fault … Some of my urgency to get people into programming right out the gate is because I’m the one who sees them. I’m the one who talks to them. I’m the one who listens to their story.”
“And two weeks later they die.”
District attorney’s concerns
Most questions from Tuesday’s meeting went to Wiedenfeld. Although treatment courts would not necessarily cease to exist without the participation of the district attorney’s office, some committee members, including Judge Phillip Koss, signaled they would not support programs without it.
Wiedenfeld said he is “concerned” with a treatment-court structure that does not give his office authority to limit who gets into the programs. He said he did not know if he wanted to be involved with a program where it’s up to the judges.
The judge who oversees drug court, Daniel Johnson, said “I don’t think it’s fair to essentially accuse the judges of willy-nilly sending people into these programs whenever we feel like it without a rhyme or a reason to it.”
Judge David Reddy, who is the project director for the county’s treatment courts, said only two of the 69 entries into drug court were against the recommendation of the DA’s office.
Wiedenfeld said it’s his philosophy to be proactive and address small problems before they’re big.
Wiedenfeld said he requested more detailed eligibility criteria for program entry.
He was more concerned with drug court instead of OWI court because the latter has more explicit rules as to who can and cannot enter the program (only third- and fourth-offense intoxicated driving offenders).
OWI court started in Walworth County in October 2011, and drug court in July 2014.
Without final say over program entry and clear criteria, Wiedenfeld said he was worried about safety.
There could be participants who don’t have a violent felony offense but have a history of domestic violence, he said. Or perhaps drug dealers could join the treatment setting and take advantage of potential buyers.
Behl responded by saying research shows violent offenders do better than nonviolent offenders in treatment courts. She said there’s no research, negative or positive, about drug dealers in such courts.
Reddy asked Sheriff Kurt Picknell and Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen if they had safety concerns with treatment courts.
Christensen said they always must consider public safety. Picknell agreed that they will always be cautious.
On the topic of public safety, Clerk of Courts Kristina Secord said all but one relevant case from 2017 that did not go to drug court ended with probation. How would that be safer than treatment court?
Wiedenfeld said sentencing decisions are not always up to him. But in plea deals, he said, they consider when people go through intensive treatment on their own. For some, that’s better than drug court, he said.
But Reddy said length of time in treatment has a direct effect on outcome. A 30-day treatment program does not compare to the average for drug court, which is 86 weeks.
This is especially true for opiates and opioids, said Carlo Nevicosi, of the county’s Department of Health & Human Services.
“And that’s one of the founding things of treatment courts,” Behl, the coordinator and chair of the committee said. “Is that it holds individuals in participation in treatment longer than they would outside on their own, even more than probation.”
‘All it takes is one person’
While he was incarcerated between 2005 and 2011, Ted Hawver spent time in solitary confinement. The treatment in the penal system, he said, is “not up to par” with what Walworth County’s treatment courts offer.
He graduated from OWI court and spoke during the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting. He said he has been sober for about five years.
“Treatment court gave me an opportunity to change my life,” he said.
“I think it’s just common sense,” he continued. “Jail or treatment. Treatment: People can become productive members of the community again. You throw them in jail: The recidivism rate speaks for itself.”
Wiedenfeld said he and others on the committee support treatment. But he also said he thinks there should be stronger sentences on drug cases, and treatment is not an entitlement but rather an opportunity people should act on.
Walworth County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell said “taxpayers are not gonna be happy” if the treatment courts go away.
“I think it would be a terrible thing if we stop doing this,” Russell said. “Because then we’re turning our back on a lot of people in Walworth County who really need this program.”
Behl said OWI court has saved $2.7 million after saving more than 41,000 days worth of jail supervision.
She provided other statistics from the National Drug Court Institute in June 2016:
- The average graduation rate in drug courts increased to 59 percent in 2014 (Walworth County’s is currently at 56 percent, up from 44 percent in 2016).
- Drug court reduces crime by as much as 45 percent compared to traditional sentences.
- 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest free at least two years after leaving the program—compared to just 30 percent of individuals released from prison.
Picknell said all those in attendance at the meeting showed the “desire” and “resolve” of the group to find a solution. Committee members said they planned to meet again to further discuss the subject.
“At the end of the day, all it takes is one person,” Behl said. “Treatment courts just need to save one life to make the program worth continuing.”