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Young people arrested for low-level crimes on Madison’s South Side now have the opportunity to go through a different kind of justice system.

It’s one without judges, prosecutors or defense attorneys; a court that hears cases just off South Park Street instead of at the Dane County Courthouse Downtown.

Rather than receiving jail time or probation as punishments, the person who committed the crime could be ordered by a team of neighborhood residents to do community service or pay restitution to make the victim and broader community whole. No criminal charges will be filed and no entry made to the state’s online court records database if the offender completes the program successfully.

Advocates say the Community Restorative Court, as the program is called, will handle crimes far better than the traditional justice system does — making the offender accept greater responsibility while doing more to repair the harm done to victims, all without permanently tarring a young person with a criminal record that could follow him or her for a lifetime. Madison police recently started referring offenders to the court, which will hear its first cases June 11.

Ron Johnson, the court’s coordinator and an official with the Dane County Department of Human Services, said the program also gives residents a greater voice in how crimes in their area are handled.

“It’s not just a crime against the state, but it’s harm done to relationships and communities,” Johnson said. “In order to repair that harm … the community needs to be involved.”

For minor crimes

The court will be open to first offenders who are 17-25 years old and have committed certain misdemeanor offenses — simple battery, obstruction, disorderly conduct, damage to property or theft — in the Madison Police Department’s South District.

Madison police Capt. Joe Balles, who oversees the district, said those low-level cases add to the workloads of prosecutors and others in the court system, and that process does little to address the factors that led a person to commit the crime in the first place.

“The criminal justice system does a terrible job dealing with first-timers,” Balles said.

The new program bypasses that system, referring cases directly to the restorative court.

The court is similar to restorative justice programs already in place across the country and in Madison schools. It is starting on the South Side as a pilot program, and could eventually expand to other parts of Madison and Dane County.

If the offender chooses to take part, he or she will have to admit to the crime — anyone contesting a charge would go through the normal court system, said Jonathan Scharrer, director of the UW-Madison law school’s Restorative Justice Project. From there, Johnson and others will meet with the offender and any victims of the crime, and assign the case to a team of trained neighborhood residents who will help resolve it.

“The judge is the peers, it is the neighbors — they are the ones making the decision,” said Dane County Sup. Shelia Stubbs.

Ultimately, the court will hold a meeting at the police department’s South District station, 825 Hughes Place, with the offender, victim, Johnson, the neighborhood residents and others to reach an agreement on how the case will be resolved through sanctions such as community service.

The offender would also be connected with county services to address the possible root causes of the crime, from addiction and anger management to housing and education.

No CCAP record

If the offender does not complete the requirements, their case could be sent back to the normal court system. If they do complete the requirements, police and prosecutors will consider the case closed and the offender will not be charged criminally — something supporters say is crucial.

Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison Area Urban Ministries, said having a case listed on the state’s online court records database, commonly known as “CCAP,” can make it harder for someone to find a job or housing. Even if those charges are dropped or the person enters a deferred prosecution program, Ketcham said, any listing on the site can make it easier for landlords or employers to deny the person opportunities in the future.

By not having charges filed in the first place, supporters of the restorative court say, offenders have a better opportunity to turn their lives around.

“If we can intervene and keep it out of that system entirely, that’s truly a second chance for somebody,” Ketcham said. “Because of the existence of CCAP, second chances are really hard for people to get.”

Not easy on offenders

While the restorative court uses different sanctions and can have less severe outcomes, Scharrer said it is not a process that goes easy on those who commit crimes.

Offenders are “directly accountable” for their actions in the restorative court, he said, in a way that they aren’t in conventional court systems.

Victims, should they choose to participate, take on a greater role than they do in a traditional court, with the opportunity to directly confront the offender with how his or her crime affected them. Residents represent victims’ interests if they choose not to participate, and tell the offender how their crime affected the neighborhood as a whole.

“Going through this process actually is a lot harder, because you do have to stand up and be accountable,” Scharrer said.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said the court can accomplish what people want from the justice system: For offenders to accept responsibility for what they did, for victims to be made whole and for work to be done that will stop offenders from committing future crimes.

“If you can do that without saddling somebody with a criminal conviction … that strengthens the community and that, in the end, makes us safer,” Ozanne said.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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