Our Views: Diversion program for low-risk offenders would be wise move for Rock County

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June 20, 2015

People who break the law should be arrested and prosecuted to keep the community safe, right?

Rock County officials aren’t so sure.

They are considering programs, including one in Eau Claire, to divert low-risk offenders from the criminal justice system.

Eau Claire analyzed two groups. People in one batch were arrested and charged. Those in the other group avoided arrest through a diversion program.

The result: Those arrested re-offended at twice the rate of those who weren’t.

The program works for Eau Claire. It could work for Rock County, as well.

In last Sunday’s Gazette, reporter Frank Schultz explained how it works. For example, if you’re nabbed for shoplifting, an officer would first get three facts: your age; the number of previous arrests, if any; and your age when you were first arrested. Plugging this information into what’s known as the Hawaiian Proxy Tool, the officer will determine whether you get a ticket and go to jail or avoid court by paying restitution and attending a class.

This system uses statistics to score offenders on risks of repeat problems. It works similar to how an auto insurer bases your premiums on your driving record.

The concept is simple: Police, courts and jails waste less time and fewer tax dollars on low-risk offenders and instead use those resources on people more likely to re-offend. The low-risk offenders generally avoid repeat problems because they stay in touch with the positive influences of families, schools and jobs while paying restitution, taking a needs assessment and then classes or getting counseling specific to their needs.

Rock County has assembled a team of stakeholders that includes police officers, judges, defense attorneys and corrections workers. They will spend 10 months examining Rock County data. They then would consider research-proven solutions, such as Eau Claire’s system or one that better gauges risks of releasing people on bail before trial.

Eric Nelson manages Rock County’s state public defenders office. He pointed out that incarcerating some people increases the odds of repeat offenses.

Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore concurs. He notes that science suggests jailing low-level offenders makes them more likely to re-offend in more serious ways.

The systems sound like extensions of what Rock County Sheriff Robert Spoden has been doing for years.

About seven years ago, the county jail was overcrowded and the state was demanding an expansion that could have cost $56 million. Spoden and his staff started expanding alternative programs such as RECAP, which treats addictions and teaches job, parenting and anger management skills. Another program, Workenders, lets inmates pay off fines through community service rather than by sitting in jail.

Some residents questioned whether these programs were soft on crime. Spoden countered that the programs weren’t designed for hardened criminals or offenders who threaten public safety. Instead, people in the programs got arrested for disorderly conduct, driving after revocation, drinking in public or failure to pay library fines.

These programs helped avert the need for more jail cells. Instead, a remodeling and improvement project cost about $7 million.

If Rock County adopts the proxy tool and keeps more low-risk offenders out of jail in the first place, it would put tax dollars to even better use.

The group considering this and other ideas needs more diversity. As Schultz reported, it has no Latino member. Dorothy Harrell, an attorney and president of the Beloit NAACP, was recently added as the second black person. That’s to the credit of District Attorney David O’Leary, who urged her to join. In a state that has the nation’s highest incarceration rate for black men, the group needs even more blacks.

Using a grant, the group hopes to define its direction during two days of meetings in Green Lake this month.

“What I hope we can find is we … get some of these individuals into treatment or get them the support they need before they get into the criminal justice system because that’s where the costs add up,” Spoden said Wednesday. “As we’ve proven, jail should be for people who scare us, not for people who are irresponsible or lack good decision-making skills.”

We look forward to the group’s recommendations.



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