Stubbs: 'Our goal is to get [young offenders] back on track.'
While many of the details have yet to be confirmed, Dane County's first community court is beginning to take shape, with one important piece now decided: It will be located on Madison's south side.
Officials say they are also getting closer to a rough start date of this fall for the community court to begin hearing cases. The program has a long-term goal of decreasing the large racial disparity between whites and blacks in the county's criminal justice system.
The court operates on a restorative justice model. Offenders facing misdemeanors who are 17 to 25 years old will have their cases decided by a panel of local peers, including members of community organizations, neighborhood associations and religious groups, says Dane County Supv. Sheila Stubbs. Stubbs authored the provision to create the program, which was approved as part of the 2014 county budget last November. She's a member of the Racial Disparities Subgroup of the county's Criminal Justice Council, which also includes District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and law enforcement officials.
If offenders complete the requirements put forth by the community panel -- which could include restitution for damaged property, counseling and community service -- their arrest record and criminal charges will be erased.
Though referrals will come from law enforcement or court officials, the district attorney will have the final say on who is admitted to the community court program. Some offenses being considered for the program are misdemeanor instances of shoplifting, criminal damage to property, disorderly conduct, obstruction of justice and battery.
The goal is to "to prevent [these offenders] from even entering the arena of incarceration because we know it's cheaper to keep them out," says Stubbs, referring to the high cost of incarceration and social services for ex-offenders whose convictions prevent them from finding jobs and housing.
Stubbs says the south side was recommended by police and is convenient to groups that might sit on the panel. "If you look at the community organizations in the area and the community makeup, it's a really good site," she says. The Urban League of Greater Madison, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, Centro Hispano of Dane County, Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the Fountain of Life Family Worship Center are all located on the south side.
"When law enforcement said that's where they felt it was most needed, we listened," says Stubbs. She adds that the Racial Disparities Subgroup examined crime data from the Madison Police Department showing the south side was best suited for the community court.
"It's an area of need," she says.
Next steps for the subgroup include hiring a community court coordinator (which will account for $55,000 of the project's $70,000 budget), determining exactly how the adjudication process will work and figuring out how to measure the program's success.
The coordinator will have a main office within the county's Department of Human Services building on Northport Drive as well as an office within Centro Hispano on Badger Road.
Stubbs cautions that the community court program is by no means a quick fix but instead a longer-term effort.
“It could take three years or it could take five years until you get enough data to compare and contrast it with what we've been seeing," she says of disparity levels.
Recent reports have shown that while only 6% of the county population is black, African Americans make up more than 40% of the county jail population. Black juveniles are also six times more likely to be arrested than white kids.
"Our goal is to get [young offenders] back on track," says Stubbs. "If they successfully complete [the sentence handed down by the community court], then there is no need for a formal criminal charge."
But, she warns, "This project cannot be successful unless the community is the key stakeholder -- unless the community is a part of the dialogue and is engaged and owns it."