As she worked her first career in sales, Lisa Andreas knew she wanted to do something else, something much different.
What she wanted to do, she said, was work somewhere in criminal justice, with people who found themselves caught up in the system.
“I can’t explain it to you,” Andreas said. “I just always felt like it was something that I, I guess I would say I saw that there were so many people that were heading into the system and I couldn’t understand why I felt I didn’t like that as a part of our community, that it was just like we seemed to be building a second population based on folks that were ending up in the system. And I was really bothered by that.”
So Andreas, an Oconomowoc native with a degree in communication from UW-Milwaukee, went back to school to earn a degree in social work, and to find her place in the criminal justice system.
About 16 years ago she found it as a sentencing consultant, opening Andreas Associates. In her job, she conducts background research on criminal defendants prior to their sentencing hearings so that judges have complete information about who it is that they’re sentencing, and can make a better-informed decision. In the meantime, Andreas continued her education, and recently finished coursework at UW-Madison in licensed clinical social work.
Andreas, 57, does her work almost entirely for defense attorneys, exploring mitigating factors — often defendants’ backgrounds in poverty, abuse, neglect and substance abuse — that could help explain the crime that was committed and provide ideas for sentencing that go beyond punishment by long-term incarceration.
How did you become interested in sentencing consulting?
I knew what I was interested in was working with people that had gotten involved in the criminal justice system. I had been thinking I was going to be working for the Department of Corrections, maybe starting off as a probation agent, something like that. I went and talked to some people who were actually working within the department at the time. That didn’t sound like something I wanted to do. I wanted to help people in a different way. And then I met this person that was doing this position and she encouraged me. She said, I think you’d be great at this.
What does a sentencing consultant do exactly?
I write reports that the judge considers at the time of the sentencing hearing in criminal cases. I do assist attorneys in other ways in other types of cases, sometimes in helping them figure out legal strategy. But primarily that’s what I do.
How do you go about gathering the information that you put in your reports?
The first place I always start is with the client, the defendant himself. That’s the most important place to start. You have to get the basics about this person’s background. Educational background, biological information, family, I identify records that are going to be important to review. I also identify people that are going to be important to talk to — parents, friends, family. I think that’s one of the reasons that my reports work as well as they do, because I don’t just take the defendant’s word for things. I try to get a full picture of who they are based on other people’s opinion of them and other things that they tell me about the person.
In broad strokes, it sounds quite a bit like a pre-sentence report that the state Department of Corrections does. What’s the difference here?
They have a very set format that they use. I don’t have anything like that. Mine is wide open. I can go after whatever I need to, I can pull whatever records I need to. My background is different, so I have the ability to do different things than they do now.
Do you do your work mainly in Dane County, all over the state or just regionally?
I go all over the state. (The state Public Defender’s Office) recently has afforded extra fees for travel so that it does allow me to more easily take cases in other counties. So that’s a good thing.
Do you ever feel like, from your work, you’ve just heard too much?
In the social work schooling I’ve had there’s definitely a part of the schooling that they teach you about what they call self-care and how not to get too burned out, how to keep some boundaries and recognize signs of that kind of stress and trauma that actually can come from listening to some of these stories. The other thing is that I would say that I continue to be driven by the problems of the system. I remain still pretty passionate about that.