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New national report: Wisconsin justice initiative on right track

Madison, Wisconsin - May 2, 2012

Judge Carl Ashley, EJSS chair
Judge Carl Ashley, EJSS chair

A newly released report from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), a non-partisan justice think tank based in Denver, says Wisconsin's effort to build a stronger infrastructure of community programs and treatment alternatives to address the root causes of crime is paying dividends and should be continued.

The 150-page report, Effective Justice Strategies in Wisconsin/A Report of Findings and Recommendations, was two years in the making. Researchers from NCSC visited 15 counties across the state and also surveyed numerous justice system stakeholders to assess the value of a range of strategies developed in Wisconsin to improve public safety and get smarter on crime. Site visits took place in Ashland, Brown, Dane, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Marathon, Milwaukee, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Portage, Racine, Rock, St. Croix, Waukesha and Winnebago counties.

The researchers focused on three public-safety initiatives that have taken root in Wisconsin in the last decade: the use of risk-and-needs assessments to help improve decisions made about incarceration, bail, treatment needs, conditions of probation and so on; the development of problem-solving courts targeted at drug addiction, mental health issues and more; and the advent of collaborative justice councils, county-based groups that bring together top decision-makers from every entity  involved in the criminal justice system to improve existing procedures and establish new approaches to a community's unique challenges. These councils have been created in at least 30 counties across Wisconsin, and can tackle improvements and projects that no individual entity could handle alone. 

The goal of these three initiatives, and a constellation of others established in the Wisconsin courts, is improving public safety. That means identifying better ways to hold offenders accountable while reducing crime and recidivism and giving taxpayers the best possible return on every dollar spent on criminal justice. The effort began in 2004 and is steered by the statewide Effective Justice Strategies Subcommittee (EJSS) of the Supreme Court's Planning and Policy Advisory Committee.

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Carl Ashley, EJSS chair, said this about the NCSC report: "The research findings support what those of us in the trenches of the criminal justice system believe to be true: that there is a place for incarceration, but by and large, improving public safety and turning offenders into contributing members of society requires something more. Addressing the root causes of crime is what ultimately will make our streets safer and give taxpayers a better return on their investment."  

Wisconsin's program has made the state a laboratory for justice initiatives in recent years:

  • In 2011, Eau Claire and Milwaukee were chosen from among seven finalists for two federal grants to examine every step in the criminal justice process, asking: why do we do the things we do? Are they effective? How do we know? Practices that do not stand up to scrutiny will be swapped for practices that have been proven successful. These are called evidence-based practices. 
  • In 2008, Wisconsin was one of four states selected by the Council of State Governments to participate in the Chief Justices' Criminal Justice/Mental Health Leadership Initiative, a project aimed at improving the criminal justice system's response to people with mental illness.
  • Also in 2008, Wisconsin was one of eight states chosen to participate in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which aims to reduce corrections spending and increase public safety through the use of strategies that have been tested and proven to be successful at turning offenders away from a life of crime.

The NCSC researchers lauded Wisconsin's work to improve public safety by getting smarter on crime, and recommended that the state continue on this track and institute regular evaluations of the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of justice strategies such as problem-solving courts.

The NCSC report was developed under a grant from the State Justice Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan corporation established by federal law in 1984 to help improve the quality of justice in the state courts. Points of view expressed in the report do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the State Justice Institute. The full report is available here PDF.

Shelly Fox
Special Projects Manager
(608) 261-0684

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