Dane County announced Tuesday a restorative justice pilot program to reduce the number of citations youth receive and decrease the likelihood of repeat offenders later in life.

Restorative justice is a process presented as an alternative or supplement to the traditional criminal justice system, UW-Madison Law School clinical instructor Jonathan Scharrer explained.

“It is a growing national movement, and we have seen the effectiveness of these practices in a variety of settings,” said Scharrer, who directs the Restorative Justice Project at the Law School. Many of his students volunteer to work on cases around the state and city, including work with the Madison Metropolitan School District.

“Instead of using exclusionary practices like citations, restorative justice is an inclusionary process where they are a part of the solution,” he said.

In the county’s program, 12-to-16-year-olds who commit a petty crime such as disorderly conduct will have the option to participate in the program, which is usually comprised of peer discussions and mediation sessions.

The program is funded through a $208,000 grant Dane County won from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. Though the grant funding will end in January, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said he hopes to reapply for continued funding.

“We’re excited to allow young people who would have received a municipal ticket to be diverted to a peer court,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi upon the Tuesday announcement. “None of these problems can be solved by any one thing individually, but together we can create real change to the criminal justice system.”

Currently, Madison police issue about 70 citations to youth per month, and about 75 percent of citations are issued to youth of color.

“My officers don’t want to do ticketing,” Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said at the press conference. “We want to look at everything we can before citation. This provides a much better opportunity for success.”

Mike Koval

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval discusses Madison's anti-bias training, a unique program designed to help officers target their biases and ensure they do not affect their work. 

Koval said youth’s first citations often lead to a larger criminal record later and that the program “helps look at the genesis” of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Though restorative justice programs aim to reduce racial disparities, UW-Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver said they need to serve diverse communities.

“Restorative justice doesn’t work in alleviating racial disparities if everyone who benefits is white,” Oliver said. “They work only to the extent minorities who would otherwise be a part of the traditional system are benefited.”

Dane County partnered with Madison, YWCA and TimeBank to launch the project, which will begin the week of Sept. 15 with officer training and notifying families of the program.