Comments Off on Methamphetamine cripples Polk County courts as Attorney General steps in to assist

When it comes to slaying the dragon that is methamphetamine, newly elected District Attorney Jeff Kemp is battling through an unprecedented statistic for Polk County, and perhaps for the State of Wisconsin. Methamphetamine-related charges now comprise a staggering 36 percent of Polk County’s felony caseload. As of mid-August, that’s 120 meth-specific cases that have been filed since District Attorney Kemp took office in January—statistically more than any neighboring county, and more meth cases than Polk County filed in all of last year. 

And that statistic only paints part of the picture.

Its larger impact is more difficult to quantify. Most everyone from law enforcement to judges agree that meth plays a role in the majority of burglaries, thefts, batteries, bail jumping, and child neglect cases they see in Polk County, even if meth is never directly charged.

On the heels of a heavy year of courthouse turnover, undeniably, meth’s grip is crippling the calendars of a system that was already struggling to get on its feet.

The injustice of it all

Judge Jeffery Anderson says that a perfect storm of events has meant delay after delay in many court cases, some of which are now past the two-year mark as they await conclusion.

In 2016 Polk County scheduled its way through a tangled web of personnel issues—an outgoing and incoming District Attorney, several outgoing public defenders, an outgoing and incoming judge, and countless personal conflicts created by the new judge being a former prosecutor, and the DA being related to two public defenders. In the course of all that rescheduling, speedy trials that should take 60-90 days have become a rarity. And cramped calendars have had their own ripple effects, like a tendency toward signature bonds where they might not otherwise be used, putting accused offenders back on the streets, at risk to reoffend and be charged again.

“If I was to put a cash bond on everybody, every attorney would ask for a speedy trial knowing there’s no way we’re going to get to that many trials in in the next sixty to ninety days,” says Anderson.

He adds that defendants who stay out of trouble during that time, even for serious offenses, are more likely to get a slap on the wrist when their day in court finally does come—watering down the consequences for breaking the law.

It’s a paradox that often looks like a miscarriage of justice, and one he often wishes he could do more to explain.

And there are other things slowing down the courts as well. The state crime lab has had delays as long as a year for evidence processing, leading to a variety of delays throughout the system.

“Many times they are charging a meth case based on a swipe test from the scene, but they don’t have the [official] results back, and that could take four-to-six months,” says Anderson. “[The crime lab] has hired some new staff and that time has decreased, but is it still a problem? Yes.”

Also adding to the storm, one of the first tasks District Attorney Jeff Kemp took on when he started in January was to chip away at a backlog of approximately 150 yet-to-be-charged cases going back as far as 2015.

“So, this big wave of cases came through in the first part of 2017, and since Tolan had conflicts with almost all of them, they came to me,” adds Anderson, who has since been placed on ‘protected’ status for the next several months, limiting his availability to take on certain new cases.

“There are still new cases coming in, and if you can’t get the older cases processed in a timely manner, the system just keeps grinding,” he adds.

“My job now is to get all that [old] stuff that came to me taken care of. We’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” adds Anderson. “But the effects of these delays? It’s the victims of sex assaults and other crimes, who keep coming to court, and there’s a new attorney every time. There are cases that are on their third prosecutor and third defense counsel. Have I had some really upset victims on cases that have gotten old? Definitely.”

Help is on the way

In addition to Anderson’s protected status, several other measures have been taken to chip away at Polk County’s growing caseload, including recent movement toward advocating for a third judge. (see: ‘Possibility of third judge glimmers again in Polk County.’)

Anderson also explains that newly elected District Attorney, Jeff Kemp, is taking a different approach toward bail jumping—charges that are filed when a defendant who’s been released on bond violates the conditions of that release. While former prosecutor Dan Steffen didn’t hesitate to file additional bail jumping cases, they contributed to overall caseload, and would many times be thrown out in the course of plea hearings. Anderson explains that instead of filing bail-jumping charges right away, Kemp is using the information as a bargaining chip, with the same end result.

“The court can consider charged and uncharged offenses at sentencing,” says Anderson. “But they’re cutting off a lot of time by not filing those new cases.”

Through his new role as President of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), Anderson is also hopeful about a recently requested audit of Polk County’s systems. The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) audit, which is free to the county, could help shed light on areas for improvement based on the county’s current caseload, and types of cases.

On the state level, Attorney General Brad Schimel announced last week that he would be appointing an assistant attorney general to help with the prosecution of methamphetamine-related cases. The new position will be based in Eau Claire, and will assist with some of the cases that specifically involve dealing.

If not for meth, my job would be a cake walk,” says District Attorney Jeff Kemp. I think [the appointment] will benefit not only Polk County but all of Northern Wisconsin. It’s also an encouraging sign that our friends in Madison are becoming aware of just how big a problem we’ve been dealing with.”


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