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DA’s office dismisses one-size-fits all approach

Diversion programs offered through the St. Croix County District Attorney’s Office have been gaining traction, including a therapy-based program that’s about to turn 1 year old. Pictured from left, diversion program outreach worker Esmer Lopez, diversion case specialist Jenna Hines, St. Croix County Attorney Eric Johnson and diversion program coordinator Lisa Multhauf. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Mike Longaecker)

Eric Johnson likes to think about the future.

Specifically, the St. Croix County district attorney likes thinking about what happens to people after they enter the criminal justice system.

Do they come out better or worse? Are they more or less likely to re-offend?

Is the system accomplishing what it’s supposed to do?

Ruminations like those have set him and his office on a calculated effort to do something other than pump all criminal cases through the same legal pipeline.

Rather, the St. Croix County District Attorney’s Office has established a variety of options to remove a one-size-fits all approach to prosecution, with the goal of keeping people from returning to the criminal justice system.

“I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go,” said Johnson, Wisconsin’s longest-serving elected law enforcement official. “One blanket doesn’t have to cover all anymore.”

Since first being launched in 2005, the district attorney office’s diversion program has broadened its offerings. It now services 175 participants, employs two full-time workers and one part-timer.

And the work is getting noticed.

Lisa Multhauf, the district attorney’s office diversion program coordinator, has been asked to speak next month at the national Professionals in Pretrial Services. She will present a session about the program’s newest offering — moral reconation therapy.

Mind off crime

If the term doesn’t ring a bell, it could be because moral reconation therapy is a concept that has been slowly emerging in the criminal justice community. The program is closing in on its first year in St. Croix County, where it’s making believers out of Johnson and his team.

“I think it’s advanced thinking on this,” Johnson said. “It’ll be interesting to see where we are 10 years from now.”

The program is offered to high-risk offenders who fit specific criteria gleaned through the COMPAS risk and needs assessment. Those who enter the 12-session group program are there with one end-game in play: the end to their criminal activity.

Moral reconation therapy (MRT) participants comprise people on probation, jail inmates, drug court participants and people in diversion programs.

The program, made possible through a highly competitive grant process, focuses on changing the way participants look at the world and the decisions they make.

Honesty, trust and acceptance are the first three steps participants complete in the process.

“That’s the foundation of MRT,” Multhauf said.

The program is funded through a $74,584 Treatment Alternatives and Diversion grant, which receives $24,861 in matching funds from St. Croix county. The funds are deployed in collaboration among the diversion program, the county’s drug court and the county’s Community Justice Collaborating Council.

Grant funding goes toward the diversion program outreach worker position held by Esmer Lopez, half of the Community Justice Collaborating Council coordinator position, MRT training and materials for the program.

‘A treatment, a therapy’

If all goes as planned, graduates of the program leave with recalibrated moral compasses and tools to operate outside the criminal mindset, officials explained.

Multhauf considered a recent graduate of the program who arrived through a court order and came with reluctance — and attitude.

“Gradually, he started to do the work,” she said.

By the time the man completed the program, Multhauf and others witnessed a change. He was accepting of his reality and emerged with goals for his life.

“You can really see a change” over time with the participants, said St. Croix County Diversion Case Specialist Jenna Hines. “You can really tell the difference.”

Completion of the program does not absolve participants of criminal charges.

Instead, participants receive a bronze coin and a certificate of completion. Multhauf said the program strengthens their skill set as they move on — whether that’s the remainder of their probationary term, drug court or jail.

“It’s a treatment — it’s a therapy,” she said.

Mindful of future

Johnson said that while MRT is for more risky offenders, other programs carefully target those whose brush with the law represents more of a one-time reality check.

Johnson considered the hypothetical example of an 18-year-old busted with a bag of pot and a pipe.

If prosecutors review police reports, criminal history and other factors and determine that person fits a narrow set of criteria, he or she could be placed in a pre-charge diversion program — possibly including treatment, school or work requirements. If that person completed terms of the program, the charge would never go on the record and wouldn’t be publicly viewable through the state’s online criminal records system.

Johnson said that keeps one-off incidents from becoming obstacles to opportunities like employment down the line.

“A lot of doors are closed that shouldn’t have been closed because of something dumb you did when you were young,” Johnson said.

Other cases that are charged out by prosecutors can be dealt with through diversion programs. And while those cases don’t keep the charge from appearing on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access program, successful completion of diversion requirements can get the case dismissed.

The diversion program is funded through the competitive Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant. The $67,936 in annual funds cover the Hines’ position, training and growth capacity.

Results

Johnson said he first learned of the MRT program from a New Jersey official during a national conference. He admitted to being “leery” of the program at first, but became more enthused after delving into research and statistics from the program, first launched 30 years ago in the Tennessee prison system.

“It has proven to show effective reductions in recidivism,” Johnson said.

Because the MRT program is less than a year old, the results so far are statistically insignificant. Johnson’s hopes are high, though, for the 35 current participants in MRT.

“If 30 of these we never see again, that’s going to be a good thing,” he said.

However, he said St. Croix County diversion program data from 2005 to 2010 has demonstrated an effectiveness. Johnson said 77 percent of people who participate in the county’s diversion program did not reoffend, according to the data.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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