Community Restorative Court circle (copy)

Key partners in the Dane County Community Restorative Court explain the program while sitting in a circle, similar to how meetings between victims and offenders occur: From left, UW-Madison restorative justice expert Jonathan Scharrer, Dane County Board Supervisor Shelia Stubbs, restorative court coordinator Ron Johnson, special prosecutor Barb Franks and Capt. John Patterson of the Madison Police Department's South District.

Dane County’s growing Community Restorative Court now has the ability to use text messages to remind offenders, victims and volunteers of upcoming obligations instead of communicating through voicemails.

Using texts instead of calling will improve efficiency of the county-funded, community-driven court, director Ron Johnson said. He also hopes the text system will increase participation and work better for the younger population the restorative court serves.

“A lot of young people these days don’t react to phone calls,” Johnson said.

The court leads young adults who are between 17 and 25 years old who have committed misdemeanors through a restorative justice process. Offenders can avoid jail time and a criminal record if they accept responsibility for their crimes and help repair harm done through community service and sometimes financial restitution.

As of Jan. 25, the police departments in Fitchburg, Madison and the town of Madison as well as the Dane County District Attorney’s Office have referred 138 cases to the court. Of those, 93 participants successfully completed the program and 35 cases are open.  

A San Francisco-based nonprofit data company that works with governments called Code for America worked with Dane County to implement the yearlong pilot text messaging system for free. Meilani Santillán, senior partnerships manager for Code for America, said the organization is rolling out pilot programs in jurisdictions in Oregon, California, Utah, Arizona, Iowa, Maryland, Georgia and Wisconsin and will be tracking outcomes of the texting system.

Santillán said Code for America aims to make critical government services accessible. For participants in the Dane County restorative court who might not be able to take phone calls during the day, texting could be a major improvement. 

"What we ended up finding when we first developed the pilot was that it wasn't necessarily big things that were keeping people from being successful, it was the little things and the lack of communication around those pieces," Santillán said. 

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The Wisconsin courts system rolled out an opt-in text messaging system in September 2016 meant to decrease failure-to-appear rates. However, the restorative court could not participate in that program because it is outside of the formal criminal justice system.

With the new texting program, Johnson can send appointment reminders from a computer. The system stores contact names and numbers and keeps a record history. Even for an “old guy” who’s not “tech savvy,” Johnson said the system is a “piece of cake” to use.     

Colleen Clark Bernhardt, the county’s equity and criminal justice council coordinator, worked to bring Code for America to Dane County. The goal is to keep more people out of the criminal justice system by ensuring success through the community-based restorative justice process, she said.    

The new communication system will also be beneficial as the CRC expands countywide, Clark Bernhardt said. In February 2017, the county received a grant to expand the program outside of Madison’s south side, train more volunteers to lead restorative justice meetings, obtain facilities to hold meetings and to double its caseload.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.