Academic journal article Justice System Journal

From the Benches and Trenches Criminal Justice Innovations in Wisconsin: Collaborative Decision Making

Academic journal article Justice System Journal

From the Benches and Trenches Criminal Justice Innovations in Wisconsin: Collaborative Decision Making

Article excerpt

A growing number of Wisconsin counties have developed new responses to problems in their justice systems and communities. Although initiatives vary from place to place, the most promising share a commitment to collaborative decision making, in which local shareholders work together to determine priorities and strategies to improve their communities. In the summer of 2006 the author studied collaborative efforts in seven Wisconsin counties and tracked their progress one year later. The data suggest certain conditions must exist for a community to adopt and sustain collaborative decision making, and that expanding local decision making requires state resources and expertise. This support is lacking in Wisconsin, except from the judicial branch. Without it the successes of several of Wisconsin counties may not be widely shared.

Nationally, state corrections budgets have risen more rapidly in the past two decades than nearly any other state expenditure. Wisconsin's experience reflects national patterns with its state corrections population doubling in the past decade from 11,000 to more than 23,000. This trend has emerged at the local level as well, with the Wisconsin county-jail population increasing by over 125 percent during the same time period. These figures focus on the end result of a traditional approach to processing offenders through incarceration. Undeniably, there are increased system costs, including the expenses associated with law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, and court systems.

As caseloads and referrals increase, system actors often ask for more of everything-more police, more prosecutors, more courts, and more jails. In contrast, a quiet change with a different approach has been occurring in a growing number of Wisconsin communities. Dissatisfied with the growing expense and shortcomings of traditional approaches to community problems, officials in several Wisconsin communities are developing new strategies to serve their citizens. Although specifics vary from community to community, all are motivated by a desire to achieve cost-effective responses to local problems through refinement of existing case -processing systems, development of more effective responses to addictive behaviors, and creation of programs to address problems without resorting to formal processes.

During the summer of 2006, I was asked to inventory local innovations in seven selected Wisconsin counties - Barron, Dane, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Marathon, Portage, and Waukesha. The project was part of an effort by the Wisconsin Supreme Court's Planning and Policy Advisory Committee Alternatives to Incarceration Subcommittee to catalog initiatives in all of Wisconsin's seventy-two counties as a first step in developing more effective ways of providing cost-effective justice to Wisconsin citizens. I had the opportunity to spend one or more days in each of the selected counties. I listened and observed how these local systems functioned and how their shareholders worked to make their communities safe. Each community was different in its demographics, its size, its resources, and its problems. But each had sevetal things in common, strengths that combined to create new partnerships, new ways of thought, and new solutions to preexisting problems. Perhaps the most promising of these innovations was a growing commitment to collaborative decision making, most often reflected in the creation of a local criminal justice coordinating committee.

A year later I contacted shareholders in each of communities I visited in 2006. I did so to learn which initiatives had moved forward, which were delayed or abandoned, and what new innovations were in the making. As before, shareholders were candid and helpful in suggesting reasons for their successes or failures.

This essay will examine these recent efforts in Wisconsin to make justice systems more effective and more efficient. It will focus on collaborative decision making at the local level; how this approach differs from traditional responses to public-safety problems; how several counties have sought to move toward greater collaboration; and state-level responses to local innovations. …

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