RACINE COUNTY — Every Thanksgiving, police are called to homes for family disputes that turn into some kind of attack.

Maybe it’s one brother, who’s drunk, who throws a plate at another relative because of an argument about the Packers-Bears game. Or the woman who went off her medication for a mental health condition and a family melee ensues. Both likely will end up in the same place if police are called: the Racine County Jail.

Some members of Racine County’s criminal justice system are working on a plan to intervene at the ground level, when contact with police first occurs. They are working to develop a risk and needs assessment program, with an ultimate goal of reducing recidivism. That’s the revolving door of trips through the jail and criminal justice system after committing new crimes.

“The idea is it would properly identify those that truly need to be in the system and those that shouldn’t be,” said Racine County Circuit Judge Tim Boyle, chairman of the Racine County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

Those in the latter group would better benefit from treatment programs to address underlying causes of crime, he said, such as alcohol and drug addiction and mental health issues. Such a program would be geared toward identifying “more appropriate options available,” Boyle said.

“The theory is the case would resolve quicker. They will be assessed and their needs will be identified quicker,” he said, adding that the goal is reducing the amount of time defendants sit in jail. “You gotta go to the source of the problem. The treatment programs work for people who want to get something out of it."

An assessment would be conducted by police at their first contact with individuals. Boyle said the results of this law enforcement assessment of alleged law breakers would be shared with prosecutors, defense lawyers, court commissioners and judges, which does raise Fifth Amendment issues of self-incrimination.

Goals

The goal is three-pronged, Boyle said.

“Reduce cost associated with incarceration. Promote safety because you’re reducing recidivism because you are identifying needs,” he said. And it “provides a better quality of life for the individual” and those around them in the community.

“I was a disbeliever,” Boyle said. However, “the information clearly shows it works.”

For example, if someone commits crimes because of an alcohol or drug addiction, once in recovery they may not break the law as they did while drunk or high, or to obtain money to buy those substances.

The State of Wisconsin applied in spring for a federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative grant, Boyle said. The state’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council then targeted three counties to benefit from the grant money: Racine, Milwaukee and Dane counties. Court officials said Racine County seemed a natural because it is one of the top three feeders into the state prison system.

Wisconsin’s prison population was expected to increase 25 percent between 2008 and 2018, bringing with it what was estimated as a $2.5 billion price tag in new prison construction and operating costs, according to the Council on State Governments. Passage of Wisconsin’s 2009 budget appropriations bill brought some justice reinvestment initiatives, according to the CSG. These included sentencing options geared toward encouraging inmates to complete prison programs aimed at reducing the risk of re-offending, and a two-year, $10 million investment in programs in one’s community, according to the council. These included mental health care, substance abuse treatment programs and employment services.

No grant funding

However, Boyle said Racine County officials learned earlier this month that they lost out on grant funding for this pilot project. The deadline to be notified was Oct. 15, he said.

Theresa Owens, who serves as district court administrator for the Second Judicial District, which covers Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties, said the grant application was filed jointly by Racine, Milwaukee and Dane counties and since it was a joint application, none of these three counties will receive that funding.

“We wouldn’t have known (the dollar amount) until we got the grant,” Owens said, adding that while not successful this time, they expect to receive feedback on what they could do differently the next time they apply.

Despite losing out on that grant funding, Boyle said that’s not the end of the proposal.

“We’re still going to develop and (work on) programming with the anticipation that once funds become available, we can apply for grants,” Boyle said.

Boyle said members of the Racine County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee plan to meet this week to continue working on the project. They will continue “putting together a template program,” he said, so when new grant funding opportunities arise, they may apply.

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