Here's the scoop

Although the coronavirus pandemic is showing signs of abating in Barron County, it continues to affect courtrooms, probation, human services, and other areas, according to information shared Thursday, April 7, 2021, at a meeting of the Barron County Criminal Justice Collaborating Council.

Formed a decade ago, the council includes members who represent Barron County courts, law enforcement, probation and associated programs, prosecutors, public defenders, and health and human service workers.

Council members keep one another informed about what’s going on in the county’s criminal justice system, and they work to make justice fair and compassionate, while protecting public safety.

Circuit Court Judge James Babler chaired the April 7 meeting with video participation from other members.

One common thread to the discussion was the negative effects that COVID-19 has had on the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to face-to-face meetings.

Examples:

• Stephannie Schmidt, state probation office supervisor, said her office recently unlocked its Rice Lake office for the first time since the pandemic hit in March 2020.

“We’ve always had staff available, but we still ask the courts to have (people on probation) call our front desk and determine if we have enough staff available for an appointment,” she said.

• Babler said that he received a message from Circuit Court Judge Maureen Boyle about the county’s “diversion court,” which places offenders in several kinds of programs as an alternative to more conventional prosecutions.

Boyle works with attorney Shanda Harrington, justice programs coordinator.

“Judge Boyle said she and Shanda are revamping diversion court and would like to re-start it in July,” Babler said. “It’s had a successful track record but was slowed by COVID.”

District Attorney Brian Wright said the main issue was a lack of in-person encounters between Boyle and the offenders in the program.

“When she couldn’t meet the defendants face-to-face, it had a big impact,” Wright said. “Now, with more in-person contacts (happening), we all see the need for the program to re-start.”

• Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said nine inmates at the county jail are awaiting transfer into the state prison system. But, since the Department of Corrections is limiting access out of COVID concerns, Barron County is only transferring two inmates per month into the prison system.

• The county’s Restorative Justice program (with headquarters on La Salle Avenue, Barron) has seen a reduction in victim impact activity (programs that bring offenders face-to-face with their victims), according to Monika Audette, program operations leader.

“We’re operating now as we have the last few months,” Audette said. “We continue to observe (U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) guidelines.”

• Similar updates came from Stacey Frolik, director of the county Health & Human Services Department, Sharon Millermon, circuit court clerk, and Ryan Raymond, state public defender’s office.

Wright said that after some positive COVID tests last year, the District Attorney’s Office now functions with all staff members on hand.

Babler said that a larger number of court proceedings are now in-person, “including a five-day homicide trial in February. There were no disruptions, and no one got sick.”

Recovering revoked licenses

Harrington updated the group on a program that helps offenders regain revoked driver’s licenses.

A first-time offender can join the program, work with Harrington and the courts, and regain driving privileges after nine months. If the offenders complete the program, their citations are dismissed and don’t get added to their criminal record.

“Defendants may not know how to do this, so we help them with this,” Harrington added.

Since it started in 2016, the program has enrolled 160 individuals, and about 45 percent of the participants were successful, she said.

Wright said that Julie Matc, Assistant District Attorney, has been assigned to the program. He said a meeting has been scheduled this week “to address how we can fully utilize what I’d call a good diversion program.”