Drug court moving forward

New concept could start here in 2018

Leader File Photo Shawano County Public Defender Steven Weerts, left, shown making a remote-video court appearance with a client, has been part of the ad hoc group studying the county’s proposed drug court program.

Defendants in criminal drug cases in Shawano County could soon receive treatment rather than face incarceration, under a plan to introduce “drug court” into the local judicial system.

An ad hoc group of law enforcement and public health officials is recommending that the county try a criminal justice alternative approach that has proven successful elsewhere.

By requiring defendants to get substance-abuse treatment rather than locking them up, proponents say, the drug court concept helps defendants get away from illicit drugs and clean themselves up before becoming repeat offenders.

“This is a great model. This works,” said Jennifer Frost, behavioral health manager in the Shawano County Department of Human Services.

Also joining in the ad hoc group has been representatives of the Shawano County Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Wisconsin Department of Probation & Parole, Shawano Police Department and ThedaCare Health System.

If the Shawano County Board approves, officials hope to introduce the drug court in 2018 and to serve between 10 and 15 defendants during the first year.

Chief Deputy George Lenzner of the sheriff’s department said the concept has worked in many others counties in Wisconsin, and he believes it could make sense for some local defendants who want to get help with their substance-abuse issues.

“We’ll see what happens,” Lenzner said. “If it can help a few people, I guess it could be worth a try.”

Under a proposal headed to the County Board, the human services department would hire a coordinator to manage the drug court and to monitor cases diverted from regular criminal court.

The structural details of the program will determine whether defendants are assigned to drug court before their criminal cases are prosecuted, or after they have been found guilty. Such programs typically allow defendants to avoid jail time and to have their records cleared if they successfully complete the terms of drug court.

Frost said the first step likely would be eligible defendants coming forward and applying for drug court. After that, a team of criminal justice officials would meet weekly to assess how well each defendant is doing to complete substance-abuse treatment and any other requirements.

Shawano County Circuit Judge William Kussel Jr. has agreed to volunteer as presiding judge in the new program.

County Supervisor Dennis Knaak said he expects County Board members will approve setting up the drug court as a way of trying to reduce the amount of recidivism now occurring in the county’s criminal justice system.

Knaak serves on the county’s human services board, which already has endorsed the concept.

Knaak said he is impressed with the success that drug courts have achieved in other counties, and he anticipates that most County Board members will agree.

“It makes sense to do it,” he said. “What’s happening now isn’t working.”

The county finance committee considered the proposal on Monday.

Frost would not release cost estimates that have been developed for hiring a drug court coordinator and covering related expenses such as drug testing.

The program, which would be managed within the human services department, would be a significant step forward for Shawano County, Frost said. Drug courts, she said, are proven to work better than incarcerating defendants and better than putting them on probation.

The concept offers the right balance between holding people accountable for their behavior and providing them with the treatment they need, Frost said.

“I’m extremely passionate about this,” she said. “I think this would be a wonderful thing for Shawano County.”