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County gains funding for Juvenile Court idea

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crime and courts River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

A $100,000 grant from the Wisconsin Department of Justice may help stop young offenders from becoming hardened criminals in St. Croix County.

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If the County Board votes to accept the funding, county officials will launch a new Juvenile Court project within the Circuit Court system.

Patterned after the county's already successful Drug Court, the Juvenile Court would provide young offenders and their families with an alternative to the traditional crime-and-punishment system.

The Juvenile Court would closely monitor offenders, as well as order specialized treatment and accountability requirements. If offenders successfully complete the program, they can have their criminal records wiped clean.

An ad hoc committee has been working on the Juvenile Court idea for months. They applied for a DOJ grant, making a presentation before state officials on Nov. 9.

Kathy Dunlap, coordinator of Family and Children's Services at the St. Croix Health Center, announced the grant award at the Nov. 18 meeting of the Health and Human Services Board.

"The grant would fund the first year of the Juvenile Court," Dunlap said. "The funding would allow the county to hire a coordinator for the program."

The county must provide a 10 percent match (approximately $11,111) for the program, but Dunlap said that money would be recouped through billing for services provided to the young offenders.

If things go well for the Juvenile Court in St. Croix County, Dunlap said two additional years of DOJ funding could be secured to continue the program.

After those initial three years, Dunlap said the program should be self-sustaining.

Plus the county will eventually realize a positive financial benefit, she said, as young offenders stay out of the court and family services systems.

"I just believe this is going to work," she said.

The program could help break the cycle of social troubles some families experience from generation to generation, she noted.

"I'm seeing grandchildren of people who I was aware of when I started working for the county 30 years ago," she said. "That's sickening."

The Juvenile Court would operate quite differently from the current Circuit Court system. Families would be required to participate in the treatment and monitoring stages. Through the new program, the judge will have the ability to order families to correct problems or seek additional help.

"This will be a huge change for the courts," Dunlap explained. "It will be more of a partnership with families."

The current court system doesn't seem to work for about 25 percent of young offenders, said Fred Johnson, Health and Human Services director.

The hope is that the young offenders who end up in a downward cycle of destructive behaviors will get the help they need to chart a new, positive path, he said.

While the court will be open to young offenders up to 18 years of age, the target group will be 12 to 15-year-olds.

"We need to get in early and we need to get in heavy," Dunlap said. "And family is the key. If you don't change what's going on at home in the family, it's not going to have a long-term impact."

St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Edward Vlack, who has been involved in the push for the Juvenile Court's establishment, said only one other county in Wisconsin (Ashland) has a similar program. Ramsey County in Minnesota also has a Juvenile Court.

He said he's been impressed with the success of those programs.

"It's basically taking the adult Drug Court process and applying it to juveniles," he said. "But the Juvenile Court will not be limited just to drug problems."

Once the Juvenile Court is set up, offenders and their families will be required to attend weekly monitoring sessions with the judge and Health and Human Services personnel. As the offenders progress through treatment, counseling and more, they will be tracked to see how things are going.

Eventually, the frequency of the monitoring visits will decrease until the program is successfully completed.

"We want to avoid residential treatment of an out-of-home placement of the kids," Vlack said. "We want to reduce the chance that they will offend again, and we want to reduce the chance that they will be referred back to court."

Vlack said he was pleased to hear that the county had been awarded the possible three-year grant from the state.

If the county agrees to accept the grant, Dunlap said plans to set up the Juvenile Court would begin immediately. A possible coordinator for the new program has already been identified, she noted.

Dunlap said she's not sure when the first young offenders would be accepted into the program, however.

"I can't tell you we're going to be out the door (and ready to go) on Jan. 1, because we're not," she told the Health and Human Services Board.

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