Chapter 3: Eau Claire County, Wisconsin

BACKGROUND

Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, located in the west central region of the state, is 648 square miles in size. The county has a population of approximately 102,105 (2015 U.S. Census Bureau) and serves as home to more than 20,000 students enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley Technical College. The median household income is $48,209, and 14.4% of the population live below the poverty line. More than 93% of county residents over the age of 25 are high school graduates, and just over 31% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The county’s population is 92.5% white, 1.1% black or African American, 4.0% Asian, and 2.3% Hispanic or Latino (2015 U.S. Census Bureau). Healthcare, retail, and manufacturing are among the primary employers (Statistical Atlas 2016). The reported violent crime rate for Eau Claire County in 2012 was 180 per 100,000 population, in contrast with the statewide rate of 280 per 100,000 population (Wisconsin Statistical Analysis Center). Similarly, the reported rate of property crime was 2,266 per 100,000 population, while the state’s rate for similar crimes was 2,435 per 100,000 population (Wisconsin Statistical Analysis Center).

The county is governed by the Eau Claire County Board of Supervisors, a 29-member body with a chair and co-chair. The Eau Claire County Circuit Court is composed of five judges and is one of 72 circuit courts in the state of Wisconsin. The Eau Claire County Criminal Justice Collaborating Council (CJCC) was established in 2006 to enhance public safety through system and community collaboration, to maintain and establish effective rehabilitation programs, and to foster innovative correctional programs. 

  Profile of Eau Claire County’s Justice System

2015

  Jail Rated Capacity

418

  Jail Bookings

4,751

  Jail Average Daily Population (Secure)

176

  Jail Average Daily Population (Huber)

61

  Felony Cases Opened

1,281

  Misdemeanor Cases Opened

1,549

  Probation Admissions

821

  Number of Pre-Charge Diversions

242

 

Eau Claire County’s EBDM VISION, Mission, and Team

The Eau Claire County EBDM Policy Team’s vision is “a research-based justice system that results in less crime and fewer victims.” Its mission is to “use coordinated leadership, community collaboration, and innovative criminal justice programs to enhance public safety.”

EAU CLAIRE COUNTY’S CAPACITY TO SUCCEED IN THIS ENDEAVOR LARGELY ARISES FROM THE COLLABORATIVE PROCESS THAT EXISTS IN THE COUNTY. THE COUNTY VIEWS THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM AS THE COORDINATED PRODUCT OF SEVERAL KEY STAKEHOLDERS, AS OPPOSED TO THE INDIVIDUAL PRODUCT OF EACH OF THOSE STAKEHOLDER AGENCIES. IN MANY RESPECTS, THIS EBDM INITIATIVE FLOWS NATURALLY FROM THAT EXISTING COLLABORATIVE PROCESS.

Wisconsin Counties Magazine, August 2015

The EBDM policy team was formed as a subcommittee of the CJCC and is chaired by a treatment court judge. The full-time county criminal justice coordinator serves as its local EBDM site coordinator. The EBDM policy team is comprised of a variety of stakeholders, including:

  • the county administrator;
  • three circuit court judges;
  • a district attorney;
  • a Wisconsin Department of Corrections representative;
  • a state public defender;
  • the county board chairperson;
  • the county sheriff;
  • the chief of police;
  • the district court administrator;
  • a Department of Health and Human Services representative;
  • the CJCC coordinator;
  • the director of the Community Transition Center; and
  • community members.

EAU CLAIRE COUNTY’S CHANGE TARGETS

Eau Claire County’s EBDM policy team, with assistance from their EBDM TA provider, started along the Phase II planning roadmap to understand the basis upon which decisions were being made at key points across the justice system and to agree on a set of harm reduction goals.
As part of this planning, the policy team underwent a mapping process of their county’s criminal justice system and evaluated their policies and practices against contemporary research. By the end of Phase II, the policy team had agreed to a set of change targets that spanned all of the key criminal justice decision points, and it developed logic models and a detailed plan for change across five areas: utilization of assessment tools, charging practices, felony custodial arrest and pretrial release, sentencing, and probation supervision. This case study offers a review of Eau Claire County’s Phase II/III efforts as they relate to:

  • the implementation of a risk screening tool by law enforcement; and
  • efforts to divert low level, low risk offenders from the criminal justice system.

For more information on the full range of change targets developed by Eau Claire County, see their Phase III implementation plan.

  • As part of their planning efforts, Eau Claire County’s policy team agreed that the universal utilization of assessment tools was necessary in order to ensure that relevant decisions within the county’s justice system were research-informed. Stakeholders worked to design a deliberate, continuous process for the use of assessments across key decision points, starting with the use of a risk screening tool at arrest to provide early information on risk to reoffend.

    The team spent much time over the course of a year defining the purpose and intent of administering a risk screening tool at the point of law enforcement contact, and worked with law enforcement (at the city, county, municipality, and university levels) to pilot the Proxy Risk Assessment (hereafter “the Proxy”), a three-question screening tool designed to provide a brief assessment of a defendant’s risk level. After receiving training, law enforcement officers began using the Proxy on all individuals who are cited or referred to the county’s diversion program for criminal matters. They also complete the Proxy for all individuals who are the subject of referrals to the district attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution. This includes arrested individuals, individuals who are ordered into court in connection with criminal charges, and individuals who are the subject of an investigation that could result in the issuance of a summons and complaint, or a complaint and warrant. In instances in which the Proxy is inadvertently not completed by law enforcement, it is completed by the diversion coordinator or intake staff in the district attorney’s office.

    A decision making matrix was developed to provide law enforcement officers with suggested responses based on assessed risk level and the type of violation or behavior exhibited. Individuals scoring low risk on the Proxy are not subject to felony custodial arrest unless one or more Wisconsin Supreme Court bond factors is present (e.g., person appears to pose a danger of harm to self or others, unable to provide identification, previous failure to appear in court or respond to a citation).

    Following the completion of the Proxy by law enforcement, the results are forwarded to the district attorney’s office, which serves as the repository for all Proxy forms. The Proxy scores are made available to decision makers later in the justice process, along with other information, such as risk to appear and/or risk of reoffense and need information from the COMPAS, which is conducted on all defendants/offenders who score medium and high on the Proxy. Risk assessment information then informs bond review, sentencing and supervision decisions, and placement into alternative justice system programs, such as the transition center, community service, or deferred acceptance of guilty plea.

    RESULTS

    “The Proxy score is fundamentally important in assisting in the identification of appropriate individuals for our diversion program. The utilization of the Proxy, in combination with traditional assessment factors, has resulted in the identification of over 1,000 individuals in a four-year period of time who have participated in the diversion program. It is clear that without the consistent utilization of the Proxy tool, the identification of those participants would have been not only much more difficult but less accurate in terms of appropriate participants.”
    –Gary King, Eau Claire County District Attorney

    Eau Claire County seeks ongoing feedback about the implementation of the Proxy from law enforcement (through surveys and weekly meetings), and the police chief and sheriff stay in regular communication with their officers in regards to Proxy implementation. Some changes have been made in order to ensure fidelity to the process. In a county-conducted study comparing the results of the Proxy and the COMPAS, there was a very high correlation between a low risk score determined by the Proxy and a low risk score determined by the COMPAS, confirming the Proxy’s use as a triage tool for low risk individuals.

    At the case level, the Proxy informs an arresting officer’s decision to arrest or release and provides other decision makers later in the justice process with defendant/offender risk information. At the system level, Proxy risk level data is made available to inform criminal justice policy decisions and is an important tool in monitoring the number of low risk individuals held in the jail.

  • Given the research that low risk individuals are generally self-correcting without criminal justice intervention—alongside a review of local data that indicated there were many low level offenders in the county with criminal records—the policy team decided to focus on diversion as a way to limit criminal justice involvement and reduce recidivism among low risk individuals. A key goal was to reduce the resources spent on the prosecution of low risk individuals, preserving funds for the medium and high risk. In 2011, Eau Claire County successfully applied for a state grant to support the costs of a coordinator to pilot a diversion program. Following startup in 2012, the program became self-supporting through the collection of participant fees.

    The targeted population for the diversion program includes individuals receiving criminal city ordinance violations and lower level misdemeanor offenses. Participants enter the program either by direct referral from a law enforcement officer at the point of contact or by careful triage by prosecutors after cases are referred to the district attorney’s office for charge consideration. Individuals participating in the diversion program pay a $250 fee and all restitution owed, attend a short (one-hour) education session, and must remain offense-free until program participation is completed. During the short education session, participants receive information regarding how formal records of criminal or civil citation charges, which are publicly available, can impact their future success (i.e., employment) and explore the motivation behind the violation that led them to the program. Individuals who successfully complete the program avoid formal filing of citations/criminal charges. Individuals who do not successfully complete the program are prosecuted through traditional methods.

    RESULTS

    In 2012, its first year, the diversion program had 258 successful participants; to date, the program has diverted from traditional prosecution more than 1,000 low risk/first-time defendants (264 successful participants in 2013; 268 in 2014; 242 in 2015). A quasi-experimental study conducted in 2014 found that the risk of reoffense nearly doubles when individuals do not participate in the diversion program and are, instead, formally charged. The recidivism rate for the diversion group was 18.6%, compared to 33.6% for a control group of individuals with similar charges who were processed through the district attorney’s office.1 The study’s authors estimate that the risk of reoffending is 80% greater for individuals who do not participate in the diversion program. In addition to lowering recidivism rates of program participants, the program has also collected more than $33,000 in restitution since its inception (as of July 2016).

    The diversion program’s success is also reflected in increased case closings. Despite the increase in felony prosecutions (specifically, felony drug offenses) within the county, the district attorney’s office was able to keep pace with increased case filings, achieving a clearance rate of 96% in 2012; 98% in 2013; 100% in 2014; and 101% in 2015.

    1 “Recidivism” is defined as receiving a subsequent misdemeanor or felony charge or any citation that could otherwise be criminal within a 12-month follow-up period.

MOVING FORWARD

Eau Claire County’s EBDM experience led to an increased appreciation for, and commitment to, the use of data to inform decision making; the EBDM policy team successfully petitioned the county board to fund a data analyst position. The analyst, who has access to the various agencies’ data systems, has been critical to the county’s ability to monitor progress towards the achievement of their harm reduction goals. In addition to conducting individual studies, such as a study on the recidivism of diversion program participants, the analyst provides the CJCC with regular criminal justice data reports and has been integral to the county’s development of an interactive dashboard.

In addition to participating in EBDM, Eau Claire County was accepted into the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative-Local (JRI) in 2012. The county’s participation in JRI provided significant resources for their analytic efforts, resulting in much needed information on the county’s law enforcement activity (i.e., risk profiles of those having law enforcement contact), jail and probation populations, and those diverted.

In addition, rather than releasing defendants on a judge’s signature, or holding them in custody, Eau Claire County sought to design and implement a formal pretrial program under JRI to include a more robust pretrial release assessment, as well as supervision and services that allow the county to monitor pretrial defendants safely in the community. The target population for this effort includes the population of pretrial defendants historically detained in the jail for longer than 24 hours. Other areas of exploration for the team under JRI included establishing a program for individuals facing misdemeanor OWI (Operating While Intoxicated) charges, which provides them with early assessment and access to treatment/programming as an alternative to incarceration, and providing assessment and treatment to methamphetamine abusers through a deferred prosecution program.

Eau Claire County has served as one of the pioneers of EBDM for the state of Wisconsin. Since 2012, county representatives have presented on EBDM to 45 of the 72 counties within the state and shared their work products and processes with colleague counties. As the state of Wisconsin participates in Phases V and VI of the EBDM initiative, Eau Claire County representatives continue to support statewide efforts to implement EBDM by serving as EBDM capacity builders and by participating regularly on the state CJCC, the state EBDM policy team, and state EBDM policy team work groups. The county’s CJCC maintains a website that highlights its EBDM work, data dashboard and reports, and ongoing justice reform efforts.