Creating a Model for Community Restorative Courts in Dane County, Wisconsin

Dane County, Wisconsin—home of the nationally acclaimed University of Wisconsin-Madison, the state capital, and beautiful land and lakes—is commonly cited as one of America’s most livable counties. Yet, for African Americans in the community, racial disparities paint a different picture, especially in the criminal justice system.

The Dane County Criminal Justice Council (CJC), a group composed of major criminal justice leaders and stakeholders, saw a need to enact change within the criminal justice system. But to do this, data was necessary to help accurately identify the disparities and come up with a plan to address them.

Collecting Data on Racial Disparities in Dane County

For this project, Dane County CJC decided to focus efforts on young adults. Local champions on the Dane County CJC–Racial Disparities subcommittee generally believed that young adults of color arrested on low-level offenses were the most disproportionally impacted. If charged, those low-level offenses were recorded in the publicly accessible state court record system and have long-term collateral consequences, such as jeopardizing housing, employment, and future opportunities.

In 2008, Dane County began intentional data collection and research. As a policy professional for Dane County CJC, I helped coordinate the Task Force on Racial Disparities—a team of 30 community advocates, elected officials, academics, and criminal justice stakeholders—which met for over a year to research best practices, engage communities, and attempt to access largely unavailable data sets. The group developed the Dane County Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System report, which included over 80 recommendations designed to increase racial equity in our criminal justice system.

Part of my role was to take the Task Force’s report and transform it into an action plan with embedded data and equity, which was challenging, to say the least.  I knew it was critical to gather champions and leaders from the advocacy community—those with lived experience as well as elected officials and agency directors—in one concerted effort to implement the plan and gather updated data.

National research on racial inequity includes a high degree of data collection, validation, and documentation. Yet, in Dane County’s system, the data was siloed and largely unavailable. Thankfully, with the leadership of data owners—in this case the district attorney and police chiefs—we were able to analyze misdemeanor data disaggregated by age and race. This was the data lift we needed, and it confirmed our beliefs. It demonstrated that a high percentage of low-level misdemeanors occurred within certain zip codes—many of which had a high percentage of people of color.

In this work, and frankly the deeper analysis that has followed, we confirmed what many believed anecdotally—that there is a huge disproportionality of outcomes in criminal justice between our African American community members and white residents. The Task Force reported that Dane County was among the nation’s top five communities with the highest racial disparity in black and white arrests and imprisonment. With this research in mind, we set out to intentionally develop a program that could positively affect young adults of color who are 17–26 years of age.

We began by looking to strong community partners. Community engagement was pivotal in ascertaining the story behind the data points. The process of community and leader engagement, data collection, review, and reporting would become a key paradigm in moving criminal justice policy forward.

To design a different response to racial inequities and low-level misdemeanors, we needed to create a diverse development team to learn best practices, discover witness success stories, and speak candidly about our issues. I assembled a team of experts and community leaders from Dane County and the City of Madison to learn about community courts, restorative justice, and systems change through collaboration to help us develop our own plan to address these issues. With support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) and assistance from the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), the Dane County team visited a number of successful programs in New York City including Red Hook Community Justice Center, Harlem Re-entry Court, and Brownsville Community Justice Solutions. The opportunity to have a district attorney, a reverend, a county board supervisor, social workers, restorative justice experts, law enforcement officers, and a policy wonk collectively learning was invaluable.

It is unusual to have this diverse of a team on a learning expedition. Typically, either a county or city will gather a few key leaders who then report back to the agency. During this visit, however, it became clear that the communal learning, dinnertime debates, and energy we gleaned from each other and CCI experts was momentous. Because of BJA NTTAC support and CCI’s technical assistance, we achieved the knowledge base and team-building opportunities necessary to reaffirm our commitment to finding a solution to helping young adults in our community. 

Creating the Dane County Community Restorative Court

We came back from the trip energized and ready. Our answer was the development of the Dane County Community Restorative Court (CRC). The Dane County CRC receives referrals from law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office, and the community to help neighborhoods and communities repair harm caused by crime. It works with victims, offenders, residents, and community stakeholders to help provide a non-traditional approach to restoring balance and harmony to our neighborhoods. The CRC is not a circuit nor municipal court but rather has a community and social services partnership guiding resolution.

In 2016, we piloted the Dane County CRC on the south side of the City of Madison. Strong anchor non-profits, such as the Urban League, Centro Hispano, Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership, and others, were engaged in the change process. The Dane County CRC started out intentionally small—and as a pilot—to work out logistics, partnerships, and data collection and analysis processes.

The Dane County CRC provides young adults (17–26 years old) who have committed misdemeanor law violations an opportunity to appear before a group made up of community members (prior to being charged) to ensure accountability, determine alternative sanctions, and to help repair the harm done to the victim of the crime. It also provides resources to the offender with issues related to employment, healthy relationships, basic needs, and other personal matters to prevent re-offending. As part of the Dane County CRC, young adult offenders enter into repair harm agreements, which may include community service, restitution to the victim, letters of apology, family support, and education/learning around harm.

Currently, the Dane County CRC is available across the county, has improved outcomes for our young adult respondents, and serves a diverse population. Over 90 percent of those who participated in the program have successfully completed it. Ongoing data efforts will determine recidivism rates at one, three, and five years. We hope this intensive wraparound approach will change the trajectory of the individual, as well as enhance the safety of the community.

Moving Forward with Change

While we are happy with the strides we have made in developing the Dane County CRC, there is still work to be done. In 2016, the Dane County CJC reported that black individuals had on average more charges per arrest/citation than any other race group. This came as a disappointing but not surprising data point to the approximately 7 percent of our overall population—the African American communities in Dane County. 

We know there is more we can do. Using accurate data, national experts, and local leaders (e.g., community, county, city, hospitals, and businesses) will position Dane County well as we undertake our new approaches.

In November 2019, the Dane County Board of Supervisors allocated $100,000 to engage a consultant to conduct a public engagement and needs assessment for a community justice center. Dane County once again will use our system change structure grounded in data, partnerships, and best practices to embrace innovation in criminal justice and move from vision to reality. Changing the criminal justice system requires data, community leaders, and elected champions.

To learn more, visit the Dane County Criminal Justice Council website and the Dane County Community Restorative Court website.

If your jurisdiction is in need of training or technical assistance related to criminal justice council systems and restorative courts, or if you know of a community that would benefit from this type of assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at and we can connect you to the appropriate training, assistance, TTA partner, and/or resources.

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Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA Today blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.