News 8 Investigates: Breaking the Cycle

Treatment courts growing in Wisconsin

Alcohol and drug addictions often run hand in hand with crime, and local experts say jail or prison time is costly on taxpayers and doesn’t solve the whole issue.

Treatment courts are an alternative solution with growing popularity in Wisconsin.

La Crosse County was one of the first in the state to implement a treatment court, which is a closely monitored program that uses required meetings, therapy and court checkups to treat addiction while keeping offenders out of jail.

Treatment court is for addicts, not dealers, and participants have to qualify.

Wisconsin has gone from three counties with treatment courts in 2002, to at least 50 different courts throughout the state today according to the Wisconsin Association of Treatment Court Professionals, and many counties have more than one.

Local experts say not only are jails and prisons not effectively treating addiction, but incarcerating addicts is a burden on taxpayers.

According to La Crosse County, it costs $123 dollars a day to keep someone in jail, and according to the State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections, it costs $87 to $106 dollars a day to keep prisoners incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons.

La Crosse County Justice Support Services (JSS) officials say treatment court costs less than $25 dollars a day.

“We’re running 30 people over what is supposed to be our maximum population in La Crosse County Jail,” Emily Hynek, drug prosecutor for the La Crosse County D.A.’s office, said. “They are going to get out at some point, keeping them there longer unless good reason isn’t doing anybody any good and is costing taxpayers money on a daily basis.”

County officials and participants agree that just because treatment court is an alternative to prison, does not mean it’s the easy way out.

“Treatment court is a rough journey,” Angie Iverson said.

Iverson has traveled a bumpy road.

Several car accidents, tickets, DUIs,” she said.

Driving on that road, a car accident almost took her life.

“Every time it’s done, I say, ‘I’m gonna get sober now,'” she said.

But instead, Iverson found herself behind bars.

“I got to prison by my drug use,” Jordan Holter said. “Actively using meth for a lot of years.”

Trapped by a different substance, Holter felt stuck on the same path as Iverson.

“For me it was difficult, because it was an addiction,” he said.

Holter was incarcerated for nearly six years.

“The unfortunate reality is that drug addicts are committing crimes,” Capt. Shawn Kudron of the La Crosse Police Department said.

He and Capt. Jason Melby said addiction is often the root cause of crimes — such as theft to support an addiction.

“If we can break the addiction, we may break the cycle of coming in and out and in and out of the criminal justice system,” Melby said.

People are repeatedly going to jail and prisons for multiple OWIs and drugs,” said Tammy Simmons, La Crosse County OWI treatment court coordinator. “It’s just not working.”

As an alternative to jail or prison time, La Crosse County has both drug treatment court, which started in 2001 and OWI court, which started a few years later.

“For a lot of them it’s kind of a last stop — prison or death for people,” drug court coordinator Anne Patton said.

Treatment courts are held at the La Crosse County Courthouse once a week. At first participants attend every week, but as they progress they can attend less often.

Judge Elliot Levine, who oversees La Crosse County’s OWI court, said it’s an opportunity to check in with participants, sanction if necessary, but also give encouragement

“Things even like clapping for an individual who has been clean for a period of time is very important,” he said.

Much of treatment court, however, happens outside the courtroom.

Specific rules vary between drug court and OWI court, but participants in both are required to take random drug tests and participate in therapy.

Patton said her participants have treatment court-related appointments nearly every day.

“That’s intensive outpatient for four days a week, three to four hours a day,” she said. “They have to participate in cognitive behavioral treatment too.”

“Drug court is hard,” Holter said.

Because of his meth addiction, in 2014 Holter was once again facing prison time.

“I would’ve been going to prison for five years,” he said.

Instead, he was accepted to drug treatment court. Still, Holter faced challenges

“It was a lot of work,” he said.

Iverson agreed her treatment court journey, which included a loss of her driver’s license, was no walk in the park.

“I did an awful lot of walking too,” she said.

After her fifth OWI offense she took part in Jackson County’s treatment court, which has the same general structure as La Crosse County’s OWI court.

“The judge looked at all of us and said, ‘If you think this is the easy way out, you can think again, because the hard part’s just starting,'” Iverson said.

Over the past 10 years, about 64 percent (644 of 1,006) of participants have completed La Crosse County’s OWI court, according to JSS.

The success rate the past two years is up to 75 percent after the implementation of a new cognitive behavioral program.

The success rate is a little lower for drug court participants. Over the past 10 years, that court had a 37 (67 of 179) percent completion rate.

“The thing to remember is every time someone successfully completes the program, the further off our society is both on an individual level and financially. Avoiding have somebody come in and out of criminal justice system for life saves a significant amount of money for taxpayers,” Melby said. “Don’t focus on well gee, some of these people failed out. Some are…this is not for them.”

A 2012 study by Alycia Brun and Bill Zollweg shows a 20 percent recidivism rate, or rate of reoffending, for La Crosse County drug court graduates.

That’s compared to the national recidivism rate of about 77 percent of drug offenders sent to prison, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Both Holter and Iverson are on the right side of the statistics.

“It taught me how to live again,” Iverson said.

“Treatment court is the most hard thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it’s been the most rewarding,” Holter said. “It’s brought back who I was before this addiction took over.”

Both graduated and are now clean, and Holter’s drug court graduation led him to another commencement day.

“From prison to where I am now, there’s no comparison,” He said.

Holter earned a degree at Western Technical College, works full time, has more time with his kids and is in a local group called Circle of Support, which helps others just getting out of prison.

I’m loving life right now a lot,” he said.

“I’ve seen people go on to do extremely powerful things afterward,” Levine said. We’ve had people go on to become treatment providers (and) marathon runners.”

“I’m engaged,” Iverson said. “I didn’t think that would ever happen again. I’m just happy.”

Every day, Iverson gives thanks to her newfound spirituality, and keeps her treatment court experiences close to her heart.

“A lot of times when I’m starting to feel down or depressed I’ll take out some of my memorabilia from when I went through treatment court,” she said. “I’m somebody I was meant to be.”

Iverson credits treatment court for breaking her cycle of alcoholism for good and setting her on the right path.

“It’s been a rough road, but I’m still traveling it and happy to be traveling it,” she said.

In La Crosse County, OWI court lasts 9 to 12 months, and drug court requires a minimum of a year before graduation.

If court participants are expelled from treatment court, they’ll likely be sent to jail or prison.

OWI court is free in La Crosse County, and drug court costs $750, but can be reduced to $500 with community service.

However, there are other fees associated with the program that must be paid for by the participant, such as electronic monitoring if it’s required, and those in OWI court must pay $350 to complete a driver safety plan. There is no fee for drug testing.

Earlier this month, Wisconsin lawmakers approved additional state funding for treatment and diversion programs like this.