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Information limited on success of programs aimed at keeping low-level criminals out of jail

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While Community Restorative Court is aimed specifically at young offenders, the goals behind it and other Dane County treatment and diversion programs are generally the same: Fix the underlying personal problems that lead people to commit crimes, and limit costly and often counter-productive incarceration.

Local officials are further motivated by the desire to reduce the disproportionate number of black people who get caught up in the criminal justice system, as well as a recently approved jail renovation that will reduce the number of jail beds by 91, or 9 percent.

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ut it’s hard to know how effective such well-meaning efforts are, given that the largest and longest-running program, the district attorney’s Deferred Prosecution Unit, or DPU, doesn’t track outcomes, while others have kept only limited data and some evaluations show mixed results.

How many people complete their contracts with the DPU and how many of them re-offend are data points “not regularly kept at this time,” Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said.

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Ismael Ozanne (copy)

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne 

Launched about 30 years ago as the First Offenders program and often still referred to by that name, it expanded in 2013 to include a distinct program for offenders charged with opiate-related crimes, and a second initiative to divert child abuse offenders away from prosecution, Ozanne said.

As of March, there were about 600 people overall in deferred prosecution, according to DPU director Melvin Juette.

Ozanne said tracking outcomes for DPU participants has been hampered by a records system that only recently went paperless, and an associated lack of resources for the time it would have taken to mine the old system for information on outcomes.

“We all believe the information would be beneficial and hopefully will have data to show how the program is performing, as well as the impact on recidivism,” Ozanne said.

Researchers at UW-Madison’s Population Health Institute are currently evaluating the office’s opiate initiative, but Kit Van Stelle, a distinguished researcher with the group, said the lack of evaluation of county diversion programs nationally is not unusual.

In Wisconsin, “it’s basically a resource issue,” she said, as DA offices are “incredibly understaffed.”

National-level data show treatment and other services — at least for those with drug or alcohol problems — appear to keep offenders from committing more crimes.

Diversion programs result in fewer re-arrests

In 2016, the federally supported National Drug Court Institute found drug courts reduced two-year recidivism rates by 8 percent to 14 percent, on average, and that drunken driving treatment courts reduced recidivism by about 12 percent.

Dane County’s Community Restorative Court — launched in 2014 to handle minor offenses committed by those 17 to 25 years old — has collected some data, including how many people have successfully completed court programming, the demographics of those referred, the crimes they committed and how many hours of community service they’ve been assigned.

As of last month, 210 offenders had been referred to the CRC since 2015, and 111 of them had completed the terms of their agreements with the office, 58 still had open cases, and seven had been kicked out. The rest were not accepted into the program, decided to leave it, or declined to enter it in the first place.

No data have been collected on how many of the people who have gone through the program were later convicted of a crime.

“Recidivism has not really been scientifically studied in the program yet, as we are so young,” said the court’s coordinator, Ron Johnson. “But meta-analytical studies would indicate that people whose criminal cases are settled restoratively (as opposed to the retributive system) are less likely to re-offend, the duration between offenses is longer, and if and when they do re-offend, it is often of a lesser charge.”

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Ron Johnson

Ron Johnson, director of community restorative courts

A 2014 Population Health Institute evaluation of a Dane County Circuit Court-run diversion program aimed mostly at those in drug treatment court suggested it was less effective than similar programs in four other counties.

Researchers found only 58 percent of 212 Dane County admissions from 2007 through 2013 completed the program, the lowest success rate among the group made up of Dane, Ashland, Bayfield, Milwaukee and Washington counties. The average completion rate for all five was 68 percent.

A higher percentage of people discharged from the Dane program also were convicted of crimes in the future. Only three of the counties — Dane, Milwaukee and Washington — were assessed for recidivism, but Dane’s three-year recidivism rate of 62 percent was about 20 percentage points higher than Milwaukee’s and Washington’s, while a greater percentage of Dane discharges also ended up in prison.

Treatment shows promise

More recent data on the county’s drug treatment courts, the first of which was launched in 1996, provides better news.

Those who successfully completed court-mandated substance abuse treatment and other tasks from 2011 through 2014 were

Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.