Expanding the Community Restorative Court and creating alternatives to jail sentences should be priorities in efforts to reduce racial disparities in Dane County’s criminal justice system, a new report focused on diversion strategies concluded.
The report released Friday ahead of Tuesday’s Dane County Public Protection and Judiciary Committee meeting includes a handful of overarching recommendations that range from reducing the number of people jailed for missed court appearances to connecting people with mental illnesses to services.
The recommendations are the result of a special work group made up of prominent Dane County criminal justice officials and leaders of organizations that work closely with offenders. They support many of the suggestions made by citizen-led committees in a report released last year and are intended to inform spending decisions as the county begins its budgeting for 2017, said Sup. Paul Rusk, chairman of the Public Protection and Judiciary Committee.
Rusk said last summer’s report on alternatives to arrest, incarceration and mental health was meant to merge input from citizen leaders with a handful of criminal justice system officials. The latest report focuses more on guidance from participants in the system, including the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, judges and offender programs, he said.
“The recommendations go deeper,” Rusk said. “Fortunately, the recommendations are very consistent with all of the recommendations that came last summer from the three work groups, which means we’re onto something here.”
Rusk said he believes the report’s most urgent suggestion is to implement a countywide Community Restorative Court. The pilot court on Madison’s South Side has offered young and generally low-level offenders a chance to take responsibility for their actions through community service and, sometimes, financial restitution, but also avoid jail time and a criminal record.
“If you can just keep people out of the criminal justice system until they get older, it should make a huge change over time,” Rusk said. “I’ve always thought that if you can keep people out of the system, there’s more time to mature.”
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne agreed that expanding the restorative court could have a widespread positive effect on 17-to-25-year-old offenders and said it also has potential to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the community. But Ozanne highlighted a recommendation to create a fast-track intake unit in his office that would more quickly review cases for eligibility into diversion programs.
“One of the big issues we have with addressing bail rules … is a shortened timeline for decision making before people’s information gets onto CCAP,” Ozanne said, citing the online court records system. “We need more resources to safely plan with victims and to make the appropriate decisions, not just for bail information, but potentially for diversion.”
The report suggested other restorative measures, such as developing a comprehensive community service program that could be used for alternative sentencing.
It also reiterated many well-discussed diversion tactics, including court date text message reminders, bail monitoring program expansions and creation of a mental health “restoration center.”
The report did not include costs associated with implementing the recommendations, but Rusk said the county would look into the cost of expanding the restorative court in the near future.
The Public Protection and Judiciary Committee will hear a presentation on the report and discuss it at its Tuesday meeting, which begins at 5:15 p.m. in Room 357 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.