Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Bennett Brantmeier has a passion for the county’s juvenile court system. He told the Lake Mills Rotary Club Tuesday, April 27 he was elected in 2017 and was assigned to the Civil Family Division, which included the county’s juvenile court. He said there was an obvious issue in the division.
“Once they are removed, two years later 70% of counties have been returning the children to their parents or moving them to a permanent residence. In Jefferson County we were at 3%.”
The question for Brantmeier was how he could help to improve this system. He says he tried to make sweeping changes right off the bat but had to take a more delicate approach.
“I tweaked it just a little and that change turned things upside-down,” he said.
Right away Brantmeier applied for a grant and pulled together stakeholders in the county to figure out the best approach. They implemented quarterly reviews of child cases or every three months.
Just as he started changing things in the juvenile court he was transferred to criminal when Judge Jennifer Weston retired. He’s been back working in the juvenile court since January.
For parents the team has worked collaboratively with human services to fund attorneys for parents in these cases, even though by law the court doesn’t have to provide them.
“The counties that have done this in the juvenile system have improved the children’s rate of return to their parents dramatically.”
He said since Jefferson County started providing representation to parents, children’s return rate to their parents is at 58% instead of 3%.
The biggest reason it’s important to get kids reunited with their family is because the children are 70% less likely to end up in the juvenile and criminal court systems later in life.
“That’s proven by statistics from these other nearby counties,” he said. “I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to make the changes I could use these other places for examples, but I couldn’t use it entirely because we are different. We are Jefferson County.”
Sitting on the bench he soon faced the county’s substance abuse issue.
“These are the parents the children are being taken away from, 84% of my current case load one in four of the parents have a substance abuse issue.”
In January he became the judge for Jefferson County Alcohol and Drug Treatment Court.
“One of the things I really want to make happen in Jefferson County is to implement a family treatment court in conjunction with our alcohol and drug treatment court,” he said. “By bringing in the families it is my hope they will be able to get some sobriety and stop the cycle.”
He said they can help a large percentage of the parents and children by educating and focusing on these substance abuse issues.
“I’m passionate about this and we are trying to make changes.”
In order to qualify for alcohol treatment court a person must have an OWI third or fourth offense in the county and it can’t involve a violent offense.
“I really tried to get OWI second offense offenders in here, but the penalties are not severe enough to make treatment court attractive.”
Persons with five and six OWI offenses don’t qualify for treatment court right now in the county because of the mandatory jail time involved, but Brantmeier hopes to implement a program where people can have their jail time reduced by participating in the treatment court.
“For these people who have just come out of prison with this forced sobriety there is a huge hammer that can come down on them because they are facing prison time.”
Participants in treatment court meet with case advisors on a weekly basis. The team includes two probation agents, a psychologist, District Attorney Monica Hall and two assistant district attorneys as well as a public defender.
He said their focus is on treatment not jail time, but at times they do have to implement sanctions for not following the rules.
“It’s amazing to see they are improving their lives and the people around them. They are making our communities safer and easier to patrol.”
The graduation percentage for alcohol treatment court is 79%.
He said it’s important for participants to connect with the judge in treatment court.
“I want to see them maintain sobriety for the rest of their lives.”
For drug treatment court the graduation rate is 54%.
“I’d like to see that up to 79% like alcohol treatment court,” he said. “We are striving to be proactive in our treatment and treat each person as an individual.”
The termination rate in drug treatment court is 37%.
“We’re not as successful with drug treatment court, but I know we’re making a change. I know we’re making a difference.
Brantmeier said during COVID he had to get creative with sanctions in the program.
“They wrote a lot of essays,” he said. “I couldn’t send them to community service.”
Jail days saved due to alcohol treatment court are 1,287 days, and at a rate of $51.46, it saved county taxpayers $66,229. Since the program started 27,599 days in jail have been saved, saving taxpayers $1,420,244.
Brantmeier hopes the family treatment court team could be implemented in about a year.
Since the start of COVID Brantmeier’s court has been fully on Zoom. He said with the help of his court reporter they were able to figure out a way to continue during the pandemic.
He said he was able to graduate people from the program he has never met in person.
For more information on Jefferson County’s Alcohol and Drug Treatment Courts go to https://rb.gy/sapdsl.