Rock County debates how to build a new deferred prosecution program

·4 min read

May 23—JANESVILLE — Rock County criminal justice officials are trying to create a pilot deferred-prosecution program to add to the county's arsenal of evidence-based programming connecting defendants with services they need.

The new program will fall under the umbrella of evidence-based, decision-making initiatives the county is working on. It will sit alongside the diversion program under the category called "risk reduction interventions," said Elizabeth Pohlman McQuillen, Rock County Justice System manager.

Whereas the diversion program, which has been running for nearly two years, is meant for the lowest-risk defendants, she said the deferred-prosecution program will be for those assessed at low-medium risk levels.

Deferred prosecution is similar in some ways to expungement, which is wiping a charge from a defendant's criminal history. Essentially, a conviction is not finalized—allowing defendants to complete requirements such as treatment.

If the defendant completes the requirements, a prosecutor can move to dismiss or reduce the charges. If defendants don't successfully complete the requirements, everyone can move forward to sentencing.

Pohlman McQuillen hopes the program, which would start out as a pilot with 10 people, could get started at the end of July or August. Starting would involve assessing defendants to see who might be eligible for the program.

She expects a work group to meet in June before the county's Evidence-Based Decision-Making Committee meets in July.

The idea of a deferred-prosecution program came up at the committee's most recent meeting May 13, when a debate among officials showed what program features still need to be worked out.

The question that came up was: Should the program be pre-plea or post-plea, meaning should defendants have to plead guilty to charges before entering the program or after?

Faun Moses, head of the local state public defenders office, said it was "kind of frustrating" to hear the plan appeared to be have the program serve post-plea. She said she was under the impression from previous meetings it would be pre-plea, which she said was consistent with national standards.

Officials have since said the standards appear to show pre-plea is best for low-risk defendants, while moderate- and high-risk defendants are better fits for a post-plea program.

Pohlman McQuillen said she is still researching the topic but added it was possible the program starts one way and changes, if needed. The reason those involved are trying to have the debate now is to try to get things right before the program is up and running, she said.

Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary said he agreed low-risk defendants should have what's known as low-touch, or less restrictive guidelines or programs. But he thought for this deferred-prosecution program, it was important for those defendants to enter guilty pleas.

"The first step is admitting responsibility," he said. "If they are not willing to do that, then from my point of view as a district attorney, this is not the program for you."

Moses said she understood her clients have to take responsibility if they are going to change, but she wondered if they could still do that without entering formal pleas. For example, she said a post-plea program could be more difficult for her office's clients who are immigrants.

Pohlman McQuillen said the upcoming pilot program is being referred to as an "enhanced" deferred-prosecution program because a similar program has existed in the county, but it wasn't created with the same research-based practices.

She said the case management that comes with the enhanced program will ensure more "oversight and accountability."

Resources might become a problem, however, because the program will be run by a group staffed with 3.5 employees who already oversee other programs. That's why Pohlman McQuillen said it will start with limited numbers—to allow staff to work out the kinks and and get more resources in the future should the program grow.

"In Rock County, we do a really good job of building consensus for what we do," she said. "People want to do the right thing and improve the system."

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