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New Sauk County program seeks to keep low-risk offenders from jail

April 28, 2017 GMT

Baraboo defense attorney Leonie Dolch has seen too many of her clients hauled off to jail after being arrested for minor offenses in Sauk County.

“For example, a person who is caught allegedly driving with a revoked driver’s license may never ultimately be sentenced to jail, but they would often be taken into the jail and have to wait to see a judge to be released on bond,” said Dolch, a public defender.

Research shows that people charged with minor crimes who don’t have extensive criminal records are at a low risk of re-offending. And locking them up can have negative consequences.

Jailing a low-risk offender not only creates an additional burden on taxpayers, but it can have a lasting impact on that person’s life. Justice researchers have found that time behind bars with more seasoned criminals can make a person more likely to re-offend, and create hardships.

“Many people lose their jobs while in jail, or at least lose income for the time they were in jail rather than working,” Dolch said. “Many people are responsible for the care and well-being of others, whether it be children, disabled or elderly family members, and pets.”

Dolch and other members of a Sauk County justice panel hope a new tool being used by law enforcement officers countywide will help keep low risk offenders out of jail.

In mid-March, at the request of the Sauk County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, local law enforcement agencies began using a version of what’s known as the Hawaiian proxy. It’s a scoring system officers use to determine the likelihood that a person will re-offend or not show up for future court dates.

The system was developed and first-used in Hawaii, and local officials say it has shown positive results.

Officers plug a person’s age, number of prior arrests, and the age at which they were first arrested into a scoring system. The overall score is then used to determine whether that person should be taken to jail, or released and given a future court date.

As in the past, officers still have discretion to incarcerate someone. And jail remains a requirement for certain offenses, such as domestic incidents, battery, sexual assault, and other violent crimes.

But in cases in which jail is not a requirement, the scoring system gives officers some evidence-based criteria on which to make a decision.

“It’s a way for us to make sure we’re making a good decision that’s based on research,” said Sauk Prairie Police Chief Jerry Strunz, who also serves on the justice panel. “I think it’s something you’re going to see expand.”

The Sauk Prairie Police Department began using the proxy system in August, Strunz said, adding that his officers have become comfortable with it. Now that the program is being used countywide, he said there is more consistency with how accused offenders are treated.

The new program is one of several created by the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which consists of representatives from justice-related fields and other stakeholder organizations. The panel is tasked with finding research-driven strategies to improve the fairness, effectiveness and efficiency of the county’s justice system.

Sauk County District Attorney Kevin Calkins, who chairs the council, said anecdotally the proxy system seems to be working, with fewer people being arrested and held for bail hearings.

“We will need a bigger sample than the little over a month we have using the proxy, and we will have to collect the numbers from before to compare with to determine if that is what is truly happening,” he said.