Problem-solving courts aim to treat offenders, instead of punishing behavior

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Eau Claire, WI (WEAU) -- Jail or prison time isn't the best treatment for all criminals, that's the idea behind Wisconsin’s problem solving courts.

Now state leaders are looking into whether the courts do their job in preventing offenders from relapsing.

Problem-solving courts were introduced in the 90's to solve problems outside of a traditional
Court system, allowing non-violent offenders to receive treatment instead of jail-time.

The goal is to address underlying issues that may contribute to criminal behavior.

"If we don't want people in jails or prisons, I think this is important. It helps people to achieve a life worth living outside an institution, " says Eau Claire County mental health court coordinator, Shelia Malec.

A legislative study committee is looking at how effective 62 problem-solving courts in Wisconsin are at reducing jail and prison populations.

Malec says the problem-solving courts reduce the number of returning offenders.

She says, “We reduced our incarceration rate. If you look at the year prior to people entering the court and the year of 2013, we had 21 participants who were active just in our mental health court.
The year of 2013 we had a 51% reduction in the number of jail bed days.

Robert Bergeron has been participating in the program for 16 months, and says it's changing his life.

"There's aspects of medication, doctors different appointments and different obligations that I have to meet and it brought me from being hopeless. Instead of incarceration, there's a different avenue to go through, through the mental health court."

Malec says the Eau Claire program is currently helping around 100 people, with the mental health court treating 21 of those participants.

"We having waiting lists for almost every court now, people waiting because we're at maximum capacity," says Malec.

And says she hopes to extend the program to more help more people like Bergeron.

"I would like to be a proud member of it and to speak out and say it does save lives," Bergeron says.

The legislative study committee meets again next month to consider increasing funding for the problem-solving courts, so they can serve more offenders.

Malec says the program's current three year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will run out in September.

She says they're currently looking for further funding.

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