County treatment courts offer second chances
By Heather Graves
BROWN COUNTY – Nearly five years ago, Green Bay resident Jolene Uelmen welcomed her son, Tommy, into the world.
The joy and happiness everyone told her she’d feel was abundant.
However, she said no one told her those blissful feelings could be accompanied by despair, isolation, depression, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.
“I struggled with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, which is far more severe than ‘baby blues’ as people like to call it,” she said.
Uelmen described the events which led to her involvement in the Brown County Mental Health Court as a domino effect – one bad event after the other.
Her continuous struggles with her mental health since the birth of her son, coupled with being let go from her job of six years because of those struggles, the now 32-year-old said her life began spiraling out of control.
She said hitting rock bottom couldn’t begin to describe where she found herself.
She was in and out of jail, racked up 10 different misdemeanors, lost custody of her son, ended the relationship with her son’s father, lost an aunt to stage 4 lung cancer and alienated herself from everyone who loved her – all in the span of a few months.
“Everyone wanted the old Jolene back, and no one knew what to do besides make police calls,” Uelmen said. “I was scared.”
In spring of 2020, after finding herself in another courtroom, facing another charge, Uelman said the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel showed itself to her in the form of the Brown County Mental Health Court – an alternative program through Brown County for non-violent repeat offenders.
“I was accepted into the Mental Health Court with the help of Judge Donald Zuidmulder,” she said. “This court has treated me with respect, empathy and understanding.”
During her participation in the program, Uelmen said she received extensive outpatient treatment and relapse prevention services at Bellin Psychiatric Center.
“They gave me the proper tools and strength in my recovery to become a role model for my 4-year-old son,” she said. “They stood by my side through my struggles and never gave up on me when I started to feel weak. They had patience and compassion for people like myself who struggle with mental illness and were able to give me guidance and a second chance to be the best mother I can be.”
A recent graduate of the Mental Health Court, Uelmen said she will always be grateful for the opportunity.
“Mental Health Court was exactly what I needed to mend my relationships with my family, friends and most importantly, I had a clear conscience and confidence to control my emotions for the sake of my son,” she said. “I hope my story and the Mental Health Court will help break the stigma that surrounds mental illness.”
Uelmen has since reconnected with her son, found a stable place to live, has a new job and is attending UW-Green Bay part-time, where she is majoring in psychology, with a minor in organizational leadership.
Uelmen’s story is one of the hundreds throughout the county of people who’ve been given a second chance through the Brown County Treatment Courts.
Mark VandenHoogen, Criminal Justice Services Manager for Brown County, oversees the county’s five treatment courts – drug, mental health, OWI, veterans and heroin.
“By addressing their specific needs, they can avoid jail and prison sentences,” he said.
Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach said the success the treatment courts have had prompted the creation of Brown County Criminal Justice Services.
“I think as a society, we have to adapt and change to the current environment,” he said. “Over the course of the last 11 years, Brown County has been going through this journey with the alternative courts. Where we started off with two, then we’ve added three more. And then we created the Criminal Justice Services specifically around identifying individuals who would be good candidates to go through the program and receive those wrap-around services and hopefully help this individual have a positive story, such as Jolene.”
VandenHoogen said the specialized courts offer opportunities for non-violent individuals to address specific issues by focusing on treatment needs, accountability and long-term change.
He said the first treatment court in the county, the drug court, was started in 2009 by Zuidmulder.
The Northeast Wisconsin Veterans Treatment was created in 2012 to work with individuals who served in the armed forces, followed by the Mental Health Court in 2015.
“The Brown County Mental Health Court was created at the request of a county board supervisor,” VandenHoogen said. “This was done to work with individuals that found themselves incarcerated as a direct result of their mental health illness.”
The Brown County Heroin Court started in 2015 to address the growing opioid epidemic the county faces, he said.
“At the time it was the only treatment court in the United States that was focusing on the opioid population,” VandenHoogen said. “The most recent court started in 2018, and that is the OWI Treatment Court. This court was also created at the request of the county board to address the ongoing issues that our community was seeing with individuals drinking and driving.”
VandenHoogen said the process into any of the treatment courts starts with a referral to Brown County Criminal Justice Services, which can be initiated by the individual, family, friends or community supports.
“The application is reviewed to ensure that there are no disqualifying offenses, such as violent crimes, sexually-based crimes and high-level dealing/trafficking of illegal substances,” he said.
The next step, VandenHoogen said, is a series of evidence-based assessments to determine eligibility, readiness for change and motivation for treatment.
“Participants that meet the requirements have their case transferred in front of the assigned judge for the specific treatment court program and are sentenced into the program,” he said. “The typical sentence is a withheld sentence, three years on probation, 90 days of imposed/stayed jail time – this is used for sanctions of program rules and follow through with all treatment court and probation guidelines.”
VandenHoogen said all participants are monitored by a team made up of a circuit court judge, criminal justice services case manager, district attorney representative, public defender representative, probation and parole officer and a law enforcement representative, as well as mental health professionals.
The team meets weekly to review the progress of participants and provides input on treatment plans.
VandenHoogen said the process uses sanctions to help participants make the necessary changes for long-term success, “which are integral to the relapse and recovery process.”
“These sanctions can be writing assignments, additional support meetings, jail sanctions or placement at residential treatment centers,” he said.
In the event participants are unwilling or unable to meet the program rules, they will be terminated from the program.
“In most cases, this often means that these individuals appear back in front of the circuit judge for sentencing on their withheld sentence and end up incarcerated,” he said. “Public safety is the main priority of these programs and any behavior/action that puts the public at risk is grounds for immediate termination.”
VandenHoogen said if someone is terminated from a treatment court program, they are eligible to re-apply in the future.
“The only time an application would not be considered is if there was an automatic disqualifier such as violent, sexually-based or high-level trafficking cases,” he said.
While in the programs, participants are required to participate in random drug testing, two to four times a week.
By the numbers
VanHoogen said the courts are funded through multiple sources including levy dollars, a Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) grant and participant fees.
He said a 2020 report by the State of Wisconsin Criminal Justice Coordinating Council TAD Program states the Wisconsin criminal justice system as a whole saves $4.17 for every dollar spent on treatment court programs.
Looking specifically at Brown County, he said it has seen a significant impact on the individuals served.
“In conventional criminal justice interventions, such as jail, prison and straight probation, the recidivism rate is between 50-65% within the first three years,” he said. “We have four courts that have been in operation for more than five years with a 32.12% recidivism rate.”
Graduates for each class include:
- Drug Court: 166
- Veterans Treatment Court: 101
- Mental Health Court: 83
- Heroin Court: 114
- OWI Court: 36
While each case varies, VandenHoogen said the average time of completion is approximately 18 months.
“The program is designed around five phases that have specific criteria and reporting structure that participants need to reach in order to advance to the next stage,” he said. “Once all five phases have been successfully completed, then the participant is able to graduate from that treatment court program.”
He said graduations are typically held in the courthouse with family, friends and other stakeholders invited to recognize the progress the individual made toward long-term recovery.
VandenHoogen said the county’s treatment courts, and programs like them, are the direction communities are moving toward to address the ongoing issues with addiction and mental health illness.
“They have proven to be extremely successful in treating the needs of the participants, keeping the community safe and reducing the overall cost to communities,” he said.
Streckenbach said he believes in the program so much he has encouraged and supported his high school senior son’s involvement in the courts’ community services program to fulfill his volunteering requirement for school.
“He has been volunteering as part of this over the course of the last year-and-a-half,” he said. “Realizing that kids, at an early age, get very easily sucked into certain behaviors because of peer pressure. Needless to say, it’s a cool thing.”