Judge explains benefits of alternative courts
By John Faucher
Outagamie County Circuit Judge Mark McGinnis visited with officials from the city of New London and village of Hortonville earlier this month.
McGinnis is traveling to municipalities in the county to update local officials on the status of the court, and to discuss the effectiveness of alternative courts in Outagamie County.
There are seven circuit judges in Outagamie County. Each Judge handles roughly 6,000 cases per year.
Outagamie County was one of the first in the state to set up alternative courts.
There currently is a veteran’s court, drug and alcohol court, mental health and truancy courts.
McGinnis said alternative courts are set up for non-violent offenders with little or no prior record. He said they are typically for defendants with a low to moderate risk to re-offend.
“The idea behind it is to try and become better and more effective in providing services to individuals who need them,” said McGinnis. “Alternative courts provide opportunities to put a focus on an issue and build relationships with people.
“We’ve found as judges if you can establish a relationship with defendants, hold them accountable and praise them when they do good, they are less likely to re-offend.”
He used the Outagamie County Truancy Court as an example.
McGinnis travels to schools in the Appleton School District twice a month where truancy court is held in either a classroom or auditorium. A clerk of courts and a court reporter travel with him.
McGinnis said since they began the truancy court eight years ago, habitual truancy in the Appleton School District dropped by 80 percent.
One student at a time appears before the judge at a table. Typically, there is a school official present and a police liaison who acts as the bailiff. McGinnis said 92 percent of the kids show up for their court date in the truancy court, as opposed to 50 percent that show up for court in a traditional setting.
“Students only miss 15 to 25 minutes of school as opposed to several hours missed to attend traditional court,” said McGinnis.
He also explained family and school involvement with the alternative truancy court is better than it was in a traditional courtroom setting.
Students report each month for a status check and as part of the program, each defendant also completes 120 hours of community service in the first three weeks of August.
“Sometimes if they’re doing good we tell them they don’t need to report back the next month, but a lot of kids want to come anyway,” said McGinnis. “We have found that if you spend time with them and praise them when they do well, they are more likely to do better the next month. It’s effective, it works and it’s good for kids.”
Municipal Judge Laurie Shaw informed council members that she and New London Police Officer Josh Wilson had the opportunity to sit in on a truancy court session in Appleton.
“What we really took away from that was the understanding of the importance of that partnership between the school, police department, and the court,” said Shaw. “We really try to take that team approach and work with the student because they need someone to set the trail and then someone to hold them to the course.”
McGinnis talked about evidence based decision making in law enforcement and the judicial system.
“It is a partnership of everyone trying to use evidence to make good decisions and try to create success,” said McGinnis.
McGinnis said that at at one time there were approximately 700 students who were habitually truant from school in the Appleton School District. Last year, there were a 131 tickets issued for truancy.
“Students are going to class, they’re accountable and graduating at higher rates,” said McGinnis.
He told council members 11 years ago when he became a judge he would have never imagined the effectiveness of the alternative courts.
“One of the best things we can do as a judge is look in the mirror and see where we’re not doing well. There are a lot ways we can improve in the judicial system and we’re going to keep working at it,” he said.