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Wolner: “We’ve had some pretty powerful people that have gotten behind it.”

Photo: Barron County Restorative Justice Program

Location, location, location.

Is it really everything?

Being located in a small, close-knit rural community has enabled Wisconsin’s Barron County Restorative Justice Program (BCRJP) to work closely with multiple agencies across sectors; to secure local funding that eventually attracted money from beyond the county line; and ultimately to secure a free program evaluation from a local university that documented its success.

That evaluation, completed this winter, shows that the program is “at least partially responsible” for juvenile arrest rates that are nearly 70 percent lower than the rates of comparable counties in Wisconsin.

But now that the program is financially secure and its influence on reductions in juvenile arrests is officially “evidence-based,” its leaders face new questions: What do we do now? Can our program be replicated? Or are BCRJP’s achievements unique to its location?

Evaluation Motivation

Restorative justice seeks to help offenders see the damage that crime does to individuals and communities and to repair that damage, usually by talking with victims about the impact of crimes and by engaging in projects to restore property or otherwise help victims.

Launched in late 1999, BCRJP provides victim and community restoration opportunities as an alternative to fines or detention for youthful offenders, who are referred by courts and police. The activities include teen court, conferences with victims and offenders, community service projects, truancy intervention, education about the impact of shoplifting, and victim impact panels that speak to schools and other groups.

In 2007, BCRJP served 555 youth, through either a one-time session (for very low-level, first-time offenders) or a series of weekly contacts, according to Executive Director Polly Wolner. The program has been funded by a diverse mix of ever-increasing state and local grants (including funding from county schools) and federal earmarks.

That funding and other growth opportunities have often been facilitated by BCRJP’s 17-member board, stacked with representatives from the county’s system of care for youthful offenders: law enforcement and corrections officials, the director of the county’s health and human services agency, the chairman of the county’s board of supervisors, two judges, a minister and the superintendent of the county school system.

“We have had our naysayers, but we’ve also had some pretty powerful people that have gotten behind it,” Wolner said.

The nonprofit felt no strong urge for an evaluation – until Wolner made a presentation last summer about BCRJP at a meeting of the Wisconsin Governor’s Juvenile Justice Commission, of which she is a member. After she provided statistics about the county’s declining juvenile adjudication rates, other commission members asked about arrest rates. Wolner didn’t have such data.

A few commission members from law enforcement slipped out of the room to make some phone calls, then came back and told Wolner that her county’s juvenile arrest numbers were “considerably less” than the numbers in other counties.

That made BCRJP want to find out just where Barron County stood in terms of its juvenile arrest rates for various crimes compared with other counties with similar juvenile populations, and whether the program might be affecting those rates.

Local Prof Steps Up

The biggest obstacles were typical: BCRJP had no funding for evaluation and no mechanism to collect such data on the youth it served.

Once again, Barron County’s interconnected community provided an answer. At a monthly victim/offender conference training for volunteers, newcomer Eric Kasper, an assistant political science professor at the University of Wisconsin/Barron County, heard Wolner describe the questions raised at the Juvenile Justice Commission meeting about the program’s effect on arrest rates.

“He spoke up and said, ‘You know, I’d be willing to do an evaluation,’ ” Wolner said. What’s more, she said, “He wouldn’t charge us.”

“I saw it as my general service to the community,” Kasper said. “That’s what the job of an academic is, especially in the social sciences: to be involved and to lend your services. I think it’s especially important here in a smaller town … integrating the campus with the community.”

For the next few months, Kasper analyzed juvenile arrest data from the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance’s Statistical Analysis Center, which receives comprehensive crime and arrest data from hundreds of law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin. He made two types of comparisons.

First, he compared the number of juvenile arrests for a variety of crimes in Barron County with the average number of arrests for 12 other counties with juvenile populations of similar size (11,420 in 2005). Data for this comparison was from 2005, the most recent year available.

Second, he compared juvenile arrest rates in Barron County with the rest of the state of Wisconsin (minus Barron County) for 1995-1999 and for 2000-2005.


Kasper found that the number of juvenile arrests in Barron County in 2005 was 417, while the average of the 12 other counties was 704 – nearly 70 percent higher.

When the arrests were broken down by type of offense, the differences were even more stark:

The 12 other counties, on average, logged 89 percent more non-index offenses (such as simple assault, vandalism and disorderly conduct) in 2005 than Barron County (599 vs. 317), and 79 percent more status offenses, such as curfew violations, running away and some alcohol violations (181 vs. 101).

The difference for index crimes, which include homicide, sexual assault, burglary and major theft, was small.

As for the difference in arrest rates between Barron County and the rest of the state, both experienced declines from the first time period, 1995-1999, to the second, 2000-2005. But for Barron County, the average rate for the second time period was 28 percent less than for the first, while the difference between those two time periods at the state level was 17 percent.

From 1999, when BCRJP began, to 2005, the average juvenile arrest rate for Barron County declined nearly 45 percent, while the state’s average rate declined 19 percent.

This doesn’t prove that BCRJP caused the decline. “It’s an imperfect measure of what they do,” Kasper said, “because the whole point of restorative justice is not necessarily to deter, but to bring everyone to an agreement. So this is just one piece of the puzzle.”

Nevertheless, Kasper’s report noted, “Juvenile crime rates across the board in Barron County began their decrease right around the time BCRJP began operations.”

What Next?

Wolner hopes to use part of a $235,000 congressional earmark this year to either invest in program expansion or in more evaluation – the latter with an eye toward exploring the idea of becoming a model program.

Kasper theorizes that while Barron County offers some unique resources, it would not be that difficult to achieve similar success in places of the same size or smaller. He believes the model could work in urban neighborhoods as well, as long as the approach was geographically specific and utilized existing relationships.

“Having that personal connection of knowing who you’re working with as an individual is what’s key to the success of these programs,” Kasper said.

The evaluation is available at http://www.barron.uwc.edu/staff/ekasper/www/Restorative%20Justice%20&%20Crime%20Reduction.pdf.

Contact: Polly Wolner, BCRJP (715) 736-0940; Eric Kasper (715) 234-8176, ext. 5472.

  • Jim Moeser

    This illustrates how Restorative practices, when supported by key leaders, can change the “culture” of a community over time – taking us “back to the future” when the community took an active role in establishing peace in the community and the professionals facilitated it- believing that given the right support the community will respond. Good research on how a system can change.