Outagamie County treatment courts not a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card; they replace punishment with rehabilitiation

Judge Mark Schroeder presides over Mental Health Court in Branch 7 at Outagamie County Courthouse on July 28 in Appleton.
Judge Mark Schroeder presides over Mental Health Court in Branch 7 at Outagamie County Courthouse on July 28 in Appleton.

APPLETON – Friday mornings in Outagamie County Circuit Court Branch 7 look different than a typical courtroom setting.

The morning starts out with conversation, jokes and laughter. Judge Mark Schroeder enters and banters with people in the room. It feels more like a classroom than a courtroom.

Court begins at 9 a.m., but not always on the dot. Court participants sit in the jury box, while county staff from various departments take seats at the counsel tables and in the gallery. Once it's time to start, Schroeder's tone becomes serious and he calls up court participants, one by one, to discuss how the previous week has gone.

The program is the Outagamie County Mental Health Court. It is an opportunity for people with mental health diagnoses to have charges reduced or dismissed, or avoid incarceration upon successful completion of the program.

People who have graduated from the program say it helped them turn their lives around.

John Hendricks of Appleton participated in the Mental Health Court from April 2022 to February of this year.

"I ended up there because mentally, I wasn't really stable. ... I was just making the wrong choices. And I don't think I would have gotten any better, I would have gotten in way more trouble, if I didn't do the program," Hendricks said.

It's no "get-out-of-jail-free card," said former Mental Health Court coordinator Robyn Van Bogart. The program is rigorous, and requires participants undergo therapy, maintain absolute sobriety, participate in outreach events with the community and more.

Discussion in court shifts between lighthearted and serious. Sometimes participants had difficult weeks, with stresses in their personal life and relapses. Some become tearful and voice frustrations with themselves. But through it all, there is support and camaraderie in the room. Participants applaud each other for their successes, and staff offer words of encouragement when someone's week did not go as hoped.

Mental Health Court is just one model of a slew of treatment courts across the state.

Outagamie County also has a Veterans Treatment Court and a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court — which is separated into two tracks, one for OWIs and one more focused on drug addictions. The county will start a family recovery treatment court in September.

Brown County offers the same types of treatment courts, with some slight variations on criteria, in addition to a juvenile treatment court for people ages 17 to 21 and a heroin/opioid treatment court — which was the first of its kind in the nation when it was implemented in 2015, said Brown County Criminal Justice Services manager Mark Vanden Hoogen.

Other counties with highly populated cities — like Milwaukee, Dane, Eau Claire and La Crosse — similarly have a variety of treatment courts. The programs are scarcer in more rural parts of the state.

These courts all have the same goal: to replace traditional methods of punishment for criminal behavior with rehabilitation.

Success stories show benefits of treatment courts

When Outagamie County started its Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court in 2009, Judge John Des Jardins was skeptical.

"My initial reaction to that was it was just an excuse to be soft on crime," Des Jardins said.

If he was going to be against something, Des Jardins decided, he should learn more about it first. So he sat in on a day of drug court.

"It just totally blew me away, how effective it seemed to be," he said.

Des Jardins, who retired from Outagamie County Circuit Court in 2021, had at the time already spent more than 30 years working in the criminal justice system, as a district attorney in Outagamie and Oconto counties, then as a judge in Outagamie County.

On the day Des Jardins sat in, sometime around 2010, one participant was graduating. The person's family shared how the participant had turned their life around since starting the program, and it hit Des Jardins — treatment courts can really help a person change their behavior.

"As a judge, you know, you're sentencing people, and you just realize, well, I'm punishing the person. And the rehabilitation that takes place in prison or incarceration, oftentimes it just does not work at all, doesn't even come close to transforming the person's life," Des Jardins said.

Inspired by what he saw, Des Jardins started the county's Veterans Treatment Court in 2010.

In 2012, Outagamie County implemented its Mental Health Court. In 2019, the county expanded its Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court Program to include a separate OWI track, primarily for people who might be functioning in their daily lives but struggle with alcoholism and have received their fourth or subsequent OWI.

The Family Treatment Court will help parents who have active cases in Child Protective Services and who have substance use disorders regain parental rights. Unlike the other treatment courts, it will not require a parent to face criminal charges, Outagamie County Judge Mitchell Metropulos said.

Judge Mark Schroeder, presiding over Mental Health Court, applauds a participant's accomplishment on July 28 in Branch 7 at Outagamie County Courthouse in Appleton.
Judge Mark Schroeder, presiding over Mental Health Court, applauds a participant's accomplishment on July 28 in Branch 7 at Outagamie County Courthouse in Appleton.

Treatment courts started in Dane County

Wisconsin's treatment courts date back to 1996, when Dane County implemented its adult drug court. Wisconsin's first veterans court started in 2009 in Rock County, and Eau Claire County developed the state's first mental health treatment court in 2011.

Like Outagamie County, Brown County's drug court started in 2009, followed by a veterans court in 2012, and its mental health and heroin courts in 2015. OWI court was implemented in 2018 and family recovery court in 2020. Brown County's newest treatment court, the Juvenile Treatment Court, was piloted in 2021 and fully implemented earlier this year, Vanden Hoogen said.

Both counties have seen significantly lowered rates of recidivism by people who have gone through a treatment court program.

  • In 2022, Brown County's average rate of recidivism three years after exiting a treatment court program was 36%.

  • For that same year, Outagamie County's rate of recidivism for graduates three years out of Veterans Treatment Court was 26%; for Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court, 27%; and around 48% for Mental Health Court, according to county data.

  • By comparison, a 2018 study from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections found the average rate of re-arrests in Wisconsin in a three-year period after release from prison was 52%.

Treatment courts are not only more helpful than jail time for helping a person turn their life around, but are also a better alternative for taxpayers.

"Opposed to spending, you know, $55 a day in jail, these programs are a fraction of the cost," said Bernie Vetrone, director of Outagamie County Criminal Justice Treatment Services.

It's more productive to society for a person to be working, paying taxes and engaging in their community than sitting in jail, Brown County's Vanden Hoogen said.

Darek Nash of Neenah went through Veterans Treatment Court beginning in 2021 through May of this year. Nash was in the Marines from 2008 to 2013. After leaving the Marines, he began using drugs and fell into a cycle of selling drugs to support his own addiction, engaging in "reckless behavior" for about five years, he said.

"I ended up getting a lot of charges for selling drugs. I sat a year in jail. I was homeless. At times I wasn't homeless, but I didn't take care of the places I was at, I broke a lot of my family down, you know, burnt a lot of bridges. I stole things, I did things I would never normally do," Nash said. "It was a pretty rough multiple years."

Nash was accepted into Veterans Treatment Court as part of his sentence following his year-long jail stay.

Now, he lives with his girlfriend and their 6-month-old baby, and works as a maintenance technician at a factory in Little Chute.

"I don't think I would be where I'm at today if I did not have veterans court, I guarantee it," Nash said. "If I would have just been thrown in jail or prison, I probably would have continued the crap that I was doing before."

How treatment courts work

Treatments courts offer individualized programs, molded to fit each participant's needs.

Schroeder said that in Outagamie County Mental Health Court, determining what types of therapy and resources each participant will benefit most from can be a challenge for him and the treatment court staff.

"Trying to figure out what their needs are, what the available resources are for a particular individual and how to balance the treatment needs they have against trying to avoid disrupting those parts of their life that are stable — while also trying to protect the public from any sort of meltdowns or crises moments — that's a difficult thing to do," Schroeder said. "It's not easy, and there's some trial and error involved, unfortunately, at times."

Participants go through phases of their programs that change based on their goals and needs, said Beth Robinson, deputy director of Outagamie County Criminal Justice Treatment Services.

"You might be focusing first on basic needs — housing, food, shelter — but then you're shifting into treatment needs, and then you're shifting into errors in thinking, and then you're shifting into employment education goals," Robinson said. "It really depends on where they are in the program."

For example, in Outagamie County Mental Health Court, participants go through five phases before graduation.

During the first two phases, they must attend court weekly and complete requirements like going to medical and dental appointments and creating a budget.

Starting in phase three, they attend court biweekly and enroll in group therapy, which can involve one or more of various programs, like Moral Reconation Therapy — a type of therapy that involves learning how to change thinking processes and make better choices — or anger management group therapy.

By phase five, they only need to attend court once a month, and maintain a stable routine.

All of Outagamie County's treatment court programs include five phases and involve regular drug and alcohol testing, Robinson said.

On average, Outagamie County Mental Health Court and the OWI track of Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court take an average of about 20 months to complete. Veterans Treatment Court and the primary Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court track have a slightly longer average of around 25 months, Robinson said.

Nash said each phase in veterans court was progressively more challenging, as he was given more freedom but had more responsibilities expected of him. However, the longer he spent in the program, the more he grew in confidence.

"When you feel more comfortable and stuff like that, you can open up about the problems you had," Nash said. "I did open up, and I got a lot off my chest, and I got the help that I needed."

Veterans Treatment Court is the only one of the county's treatment courts that pairs each participant with a mentor, Robinson said. Veterans court mentors have to be graduates of the program for a year. Nash said he plans to return as a mentor once he is eligible.

Treatment court teams consist a presiding judge, a court coordinator, a representative from the district attorney's office, a representative from the public defender's office, probation agents, and sometimes other county staff. Some treatment court programs have court weekly, while others meet twice a month.

Josh Hopkins, behavioral health investigator for the Outagamie County Sheriff's Office, sits in weekly on Mental Health Court. He said he believes having a law enforcement representative participating in the court is crucial.

"We are building rapport with these clients that have very high needs. And that rapport becomes very crucial when there's welfare checks or things like that that need to be done," Hopkins said. "In the past, law enforcement who are directly involved with Mental Health Court can really go out and do welfare checks and things like that on participants that with other officers may not be successful, but when they see a familiar face, it tends to be more impactful and more beneficial."

While participants are expected to follow the rules, missing a therapy appointment or failing a drug test does not mean automatic expulsion from the program. Schroeder said the program aims to give "treatment responses" to relapses, and helps provide participants with the tools to find success and keep moving forward even when they take a step back in recovery.

"Success on this stuff isn't linear," Schroeder reminded a frustrated court participant during Mental Health Court on July 28.

Brown County had 96 active participants in its treatment courts and 53 graduations in 2022, according to the county's annual report. During the existence of each of Brown County's treatment courts, 59% of all participants made it through the program to graduation.

In Outagamie County, the treatment court graduation rate differs vastly between programs. The OWI track of Drug and Alcohol Treatment court has an 89% graduation rate; the Veterans Treatment Court, 81% graduation,. Meanwhile, the rate for the drug track of Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court is 41% and Mental Health Court is just 21%, Robinson said.

A person in a treatment court program may not finish for a variety of reasons — they may voluntarily drop out of the program, or get kicked out if they refuse to engage in treatment or commit new crimes, or they may simply run out of time on their probation sentence, Schroeder said.

"Even the folks who don't graduate, the data suggests that they're benefiting from the program, if they're in it for a period of time and experience some treatment or levels of success before they end up dropping out of the program," he said.

Vanden Hoogen said he's seen people who were terminated from treatment court programs still take what they learned during their time and apply it to their lives, even though they were not able to be successful in completing the full program.

There are limitations to who can participate

Treatment courts are not available to everyone in the justice system dealing with addictions or mental health issues.

According to Outagamie County data, between 2014 and 2021, Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court accepted 147 of 431 referrals. The most common reason for denial was that a person was convicted of a violent offense, followed by being deemed a high risk to the community.

But people can also get turned away from treatment courts for not being a resident of the county in which they're charged, or if they scored low on the COMPAS test, an exam that assesses a person's risk of reoffending.

They also need to be sentenced to a lengthy enough period of extended supervision, otherwise they won't have time to complete the program.

Van Bogart, who since stepping down as Mental Health Court coordinator now works as a clinical therapist with Outagamie County Crisis, said court coordinators consider a variety of factors when determining if someone can be accepted into Mental Health Court.

"We look at violence on a case-by-case basis, because we are obviously in our community, and we need to understand the ability or the potential of reoffending," Van Bogart said. "So when we look at somebody who may have had a violent offense, we're looking at intent to harm someone, whether there was a weapon involved and whether they were treated and medicated at that time."

Some people turn down the opportunity to go through a treatment court when they are sentenced, because it involves more work than a traditional sentence.

"The supervision in those courts are much more intensive, and there's a lot more requirements. And a lot people are like, 'well, I'd rather just sit my two months in jail than do that,'" Vetrone said.

Sometimes, defense attorneys advise clients that it might not be in their best legal interest to go through the program, if they are unlikely to adhere to regular drug tests and close supervision, Vetrone said.

Reforming the justice system

As someone who had a 40-year career in the courtroom as a prosecutor and judge, Des Jardins acknowledged that the justice system needs improvements.

"We need to be smarter in our justice system, not just harsh … but smarter in dealing with addictions that can be treatable and restore that person, rather than sending people into a place where they learn more about drugs and addictions," Des Jardins said. "We want them to be a kinder and nicer person, but in these places, it's cruelty and aggression and brutality that rules the roost when you're incarcerated. Kindness is not part of the prison system."

Part of the issue is negative perceptions of addictions that can lead people to the criminal justice system, Vanden Hoogen said.

"When people see someone that has an addiction issue, they see a criminal, they see someone that doesn't care. But if people consider looking at addiction as, like, the common cold — it's an illness," Vanden Hoogen said.

As an example, Vanden Hoogen pointed to the heroin epidemic that stemmed from people getting addicted to prescription opioids for medical issues. He said he's heard many stories where people immediately became addicted to a drug the first time they tried it. Addiction is not an issue that only affects a certain type of person; it can happen to anyone.

Schroeder said he would like to see growth in the size of Outagamie County's treatment court programs, but said he is not sure about the likelihood of that.

Treatment courts require funding — Outagamie County was planning for a family recovery court years ago, Metropulos said, but the project was suspended due to a lack of funding. It wasn't until the county received a three-year grant in late 2022 that official preparations for the court were able to be made.

"It's certainly going to be a part of the criminal justice system, as we continue to try to figure out to strike a balance between which folks need traditional outcomes, like formal probation supervision without a treatment court component, or incarceration or other punitive sanctions like fines, versus those folks that we can try to get at some of the underlying issues with the supervision of a court through a treatment court setting," Schroeder said. "Because that's the whole idea, to try to get at the underlying issues that get these folks out of the revolving door and continually coming back into the system on preventable crimes, if we're able to help them unpack their trauma, their addiction issues and mental health concerns."

Contact Kelli Arseneau at (920) 213-3721 or karseneau@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ArseneauKelli. 

This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Wisconsin's treatment courts prioritize rehabilitative needs