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July 06, 2021 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

How a Small-Town Court Tries to Make a Big Difference One Kid at a Time

By Hon. Richard Ginkowski, Pleasant Prairie, WI

Ostensibly the juvenile justice system was designed to reform wayward juveniles to keep them out of the adult criminal justice system.  But what if there was intervention early enough to hopefully prevent a child on the wrong path from entering the juvenile justice system? Nine years ago, Judge Michael Cotter of the East Troy Village Municipal Court in southeastern Wisconsin took up that challenge.

“Truancy, smoking, underage drinking, fighting, that’s the type of thing I see,” Judge Cotter said.

“I could see a pattern where I wasn’t getting through to them at all and that is when I got worried,” he added.

So, Judge Cotter partnered with the Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services to create SBIRT – Screening, Brief Intervention and Treatment – which has since expanded to serve other municipal courts in the county. A SBIRT social worker is in the courtroom when a juvenile and his or her parent(s) appear.  The judge orders them to meet with the SBIRT worker.

“The social workers talk to parents and juveniles and then they go through the screening process to identify issues, ask a series of questions and self-disclose their drug or alcohol use,” Judge Cotter explained. “The social workers are trained to pick up on clues in their answers and then are able to decided whether they’ll offer services to the kids and their families including interventions, substance abuse counseling, family counseling and more,” he added.

Judge Cotter said the scope of the one-time screenings have been expanded “because we found that some of these kids aren’t abusing drug or alcohol but have other issues” such as anger and psychological problems. Meeting with a SBIRT social worker is mandatory for juveniles in Judge Cotter’s court “but the kid doesn’t have to speak if they don’t want to,” he explained. However, he added most of the juveniles and their parents do participate and take advantage of the help offered. Judge Cotter believes most of the juveniles appearing in his court “are good kids making bad decisions.” “I want to keep them from criminal court and now we’re getting some traction,” he added.

Wisconsin’s more than 230 municipal courts are a noncriminal community-based alternative to the criminal and juvenile justice systems.  Kenosha County Circuit Judge Jason Rossell, chief judge of Wisconsin’s Second Judicial Administrative District which includes East Troy, said municipal judges “often see kids first” and early intervention could be effective in keeping them from more serious trouble.