ELKHORN — Walworth County’s special court programs for drug and alcohol abusers are getting a vote of confidence from county leaders amid threats from the district attorney about abandoning the programs.
Members of the county board April 16 unanimously passed a resolution urging a continuation of the alternative courts, which ease jail congestion by allowing drug addicts and alcoholics to get treatment for their health problems rather than spend time behind bars.
County board members voiced support for the alternative courts while also questioning why District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld has developed misgivings several years after the programs started.
“What’s the criticism?” Supervisor David Weber asked. “I don’t get it, to be honest with you.”
The county board action comes as criminal justice officials in the county are meeting with the district attorney to resolve issues that could effectively kill the special programs if Wiedenfeld withdraws his support.
At a committee meeting with county supervisors leading up to the April 16 vote, Wiedenfeld said he is concerned about how drug and alcohol abusers are being assigned to the alternative programs, also known as “treatment courts.”
“I don’t think we’re doing a good job of being consistent on who we’re putting in the programs, being consistent on how we’re treating people in the programs, and then being consistent on who we remove from the programs,” he said.
The county began a special court program in 2011 for repeat drunken drivers and another in 2014 for drug offenders, both allowing qualified defendants to enlist in diversionary treatment programs and, if successful, avoid jail time or get their criminal charges dismissed.
The programs have been credited with rehabilitating dozens of drug and alcohol abusers over the years, and with controlling the county jail population.
County board Chairwoman Nancy Russell said that without the treatment courts, Walworth County taxpayers probably would have had to pay millions of dollars to expand the county jail to increase its inmate capacity. Russell also said she has attended one of the courts to observe defendants in the program.
“It’s really amazing to see these people,” she said.
The district attorney’s complaints surfaced in February after he threatened to end all participation in the alternative courts. The judge overseeing the programs said at the time that Wiedenfeld was seeking too much control over the programs.
Circuit Judge David Reddy said that Wiedenfeld’s complaints stemmed from one case in which a judge chose a drug court assignment for a defendant who the district attorney did not feel should go to drug court. Reddy said judges could not abdicate their responsibilities for making such decisions in court.
Wiedenfeld has responded by saying that violent offenders or drug dealers, in general, should not be allowed into the alternative programs.
Wiedenfeld told county board members at a March 18 committee meeting that violent offenders or drug dealers may be assigned to the treatment courts only because low enrollment in the programs would jeopardize grant funding needed to pay for the programs.
“We shouldn’t chase grant funding,” he said. “We should be trying to put the right people in the program.”
County Supervisor Charlene Staples responded by expressing doubt that any judge would knowingly jeopardize public safety for the sake of grant funding by allowing diversionary treatment of an offender who is violent.
“That’s just really hard for me to believe,” Staples said.
The county board April 16 approved the resolution backing the treatment courts without debate.
The earlier discussion occurred March 18 at a meeting of the county board executive committee.
Committee member Dan Kilkenny said the treatment courts seem successful at rehabilitating some offenders, and those who fail to complete the programs revert to regular criminal court to face prosecution as normal.
“The people in the program don’t get something special,” Kilkenny said. “It’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card.”
Wiedenfeld told the committee members that discussions were continuing regarding his concerns with the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.
“I’m not going to promise,” he said, “that there is going to be a solution.”
Said county executive David Bretl: “Right now, we’ve still got a bit of an impasse.”