Initiative in Marathon County makes sure the right people are behind bars

MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- Marathon County is taking innovation to the next level, through evidence-based decision making. The initiative uses research findings to guide decisions across the justice system.

Nine years ago, seven jurisdictions across the country, including Eau Claire and Milwaukee, were selected to participate in a three-phase grant process to implement it.

A few years later, Marathon County was selected as a pretrial pilot site, making Marathon only 1 of 8 counties in Wisconsin and 1 in 25 nationwide to have it.

"We should be able to say why we're doing what we're doing," said Theresa Wetzsteon, Marathon County district attorney.

The efforts of evidence-based decision making are grounded in two decades of research on the factors that lead to criminal re-offending and the methods used to break that cycle.

"If you think about how baseball scouts used to operate, making decisions based on their instinct and experience, the criminal justice system works the same way," explained Lance Leonhard, deputy county administrator.

EVDM, as it's called, builds a system-wide framework that improves collaboration and practices in the criminal justice system.

Marathon County is well underway in the planning process of the initiative and involves multiple local agencies working together to improve systems, including law enforcement, the court system, probation and parole, North Central Health Care and the district attorneys office.

"The collaboration is essential for getting anything done and getting it done properly," Wetzsteon added. "Is it the best way to do it, even though it's the way we've always done it."

The outcome is not only going to reduce an overcrowded jail population.

"The real core concern we have is we want to make sure we have the right people in our Marathon County jail. And individuals that can be released safely, we want to make sure we have those individuals out in the community," said Leonhard.

One way to do that is through something called proxy assessment, meaning officers use their discretion on whether to take an offender to jail or give a citation.

"Over-responding. That is, if an individual doesn't need to be arrested and is a low-risk offender and the right response is to have that person cited and come through court on that date certain without having to be booked into the jail, if we do go that booking route, the outcome's actually worse," Leonhard explained.

Not only does it increase a person's chances of ending up in jail again, it also becomes part of their record, even though, in some cases, it doesn't have to be.

"Even though we might ultimately divert them and not charge them, there's still a record of that arrest which could cause problems for them down the road," Wetzsteon said.

Finally, it allows those who may have a mental illness or drug addiction to get the help they need, by utilizing crisis interventions and the Crisis Assessment Response Team, known as CART.

"We've been seen as a leader, and I think we're continuing that with our current efforts," Leonhard added.

Research shows implementing evidence-based decision making can reduce recidivism up to 30% and will save $10,000 per offender.