LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (WXOW)-- The prison population in Wisconsin has more than tripled since 1990, with about 22,000 people currently incarcerated, according to the La Crosse County Sheriff. Eighty percent of that growth is the result of drug and alcohol addiction. Even county jails are also exceeding capacity.
Many counties are using treatment courts to reduce jail and prison populations, and recidivism rates.
It's been 10 years since La Crosse County implemented a drug court, a prison alternative for low-level, non-violent offenders.
"Treatment courts are very important," said La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson. "We find that without treatment, persons continue to come through the doors of our jail again and again. Really unless you provide treatment to persons that are addicted to drugs, we're going to continue to see them again as they continue to commit crimes."
Since the implementation of the La Crosse County drug court,117 individuals have participated.
"If you focus on the people that are moderate to high risk, you have a better chance at effecting crime reduction," said Jane Klekamp, the manager of chemical health for justice sanctions in La Crosse County.
Of the 117 participants, 50 successfully completed the program and 67 were expelled. But the recidivism rates of those who complete even part of the program are far lower than the average. Only 20 percent of gradates have re-offended and 28 percent of those expelled re-offended.
That's compared to nearly 85 percent recidivism rate for drug offenders who follow the traditional judicial track.
The sheriff says treatment groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, that exist in my jails and prisons, simply are not the intensive treatment addicts need.
"That's really just scratching the surface," Helgeson said. "Those persons that are here for low-level, non-violent crimes and the reason that they're here is because of mental illness or addiction. You wouldn't put someone with cancer or diabetes in jail for a year and expect them to get better, I don't think addictions is any different."
The sheriff says not only do treatment courts reduce crime rates and prison populations, but also costs. It's about $32,000 a year to keep a person in prison, compared to around $9,000 in a justice sanctions program.
Right now, treatment courts are funded by counties, not the state. Governor Walker says he wants evidence of success before investing more heavily in prison alternatives.
"If we're going to make investments, I'm interested in some that came out in the report this week, I want to see a direct pay off," Walker said. "A lot of times in Madison you hear groups say there's a pay of, but the pay off is 10 or 20 years down the road. We need to have something where the pay off is in the next couple years in the budget cycle."
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