TGB Statement Regarding Need for 2nd County Judge
The Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Governing Board (TGB) has several concerns following recent comments on Facebook by Sawyer County Judge John Yackel, and his recent appearance on KBJR Duluth News. The Judge has been a strong advocate for a second courtroom and additional judge for the county and states that Sawyer has the busiest workload in the State of Wisconsin. In two separate Facebook posts, Judge Yackel said he has invited members of the TGB to be a guest in his court and to sit on the bench to gain a new perspective of the criminal justice system, but received no response.
We are open to meeting with the Judge to discuss the workload and jail diversion programs that our Tribe is currently working on, such as Comprehensive Community Services, our Healing to Wellness Court, and the implementation of an Adult Drug Court. We also provide treatment options and funding for our Tribal Members and are exploring a Transition House for Tribal Member inmates upon release in our attempts to reduce recidivism rates.
Judge Yackel said he’s been working hard to address the meth and heroin epidemic facing our community, but, “The crushing caseload has made it impossible to truly find relief from the drug epidemic.”
The TGB wants Sawyer County to know we are willing to assist in working closely with all county-level parties involved to solve the issue of an overwhelming caseload, but we believe the solution isn’t as simple as adding another judge in the county court. We want to make sure any solution is fair to our tribal members and isn’t going to add to a surging number of our people incarcerated in the Sawyer County Jail. Judge Yackel said a second judge would help him develop alternatives to incarceration and the finished implementation of a revised drug court, but we are concerned with why alternatives haven’t already been developed as the single judge with a surging caseload. Sawyer County Sheriff Doug Mrotek told the TGB that over the past year, the jail population has increased 50% from 80 inmates to over 120 inmates and we are concerned that the possibility exists if the county has a second judge we may see an even sharper increase in jail population which has a rate of anywhere from 70 to 80% Natives.
We strongly support diversion programs and bond reform in the pre-sentencing phase which may help reduce the overpopulated jail. One-third of the overpopulated jail are Tribal Members going through the court process and awaiting sentencing.
We encourage a meeting between ourselves and the Sawyer County Board to discuss options which may include a Memorandum of Understanding transferring all traffic and misdemeanor charges that involve Tribal Members into our Tribal Court.
The Tribe is moving forward this year with a plan to expand our tribal administration building with more office and court/legal space to deal with issues related to the drug epidemic. The expansion plan will increase space for our Tribal Court, Legal Department and Indian Child Welfare and is expected to be completed by the end of this summer.
In November, the Tribe was awarded a federal grant in the amount of $573,400 through Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation (CTAS), as part of an overall $273.4 million dollars given to tribes through the U.S. Justice Department.
So far, the Grants department was able to secure $700,000 through the HUD Indian Community Development Block Grant and the CTAS money and has submitted a grant application for an additional $700,000 for a total of $1,973,400 to help offset the estimated $2,154,082 price tag. The project will build an additional 6,998 square feet of office space and remodel a current 3,436 square feet. In addition to this expansion plan, our Grants Department is currently pursuing a grant to expand our Healing and Wellness Court.
It is our understanding that the Sawyer County Board has some reservations about adding a second court due to budget restraints and worry that, due to frozen levy limits and limited revenues, a second court at a cost of between $4-$15 million to construct and $400,000 to maintain annually would result in other important services and treatment options being cut from the budget.
We want our Tribal Membership to know that we are committed to support a public defender and a probation/parole agent to work from our own Tribal Court system. If all traffic and misdemeanor offenses involving our Tribal Members were transferred into our court, we also have plans to equip the Tribal Court with personnel to assist the Judge in the caseload. The County has an assistant District Attorney who could spend one day a week in our courtroom prosecuting misdemeanor cases. If a Memorandum of Understanding were developed between the Tribe, the County, and Judge Yackel, we would work diligently to develop a new Criminal Court Code to accommodate regulations and a fee and fine schedule under our jurisdiction. We believe this would provide relief to the overwhelming Sawyer County Court caseload and be in the best interest of our Tribal Membership.
The TGB believes that our Tribal Membership worries that when going to the county for bond testing, court hearings, counseling, or to see their probation agent, that at any time they could be incarcerated and they find that intimidating. Another concern we have is that our members have difficulty with transportation to appointments and when they miss hearings, counseling, bond testing or probation appointments, they find themselves in a snowball effect sometimes with more charges. We feel that having a second bond testing site here at our Behavioral Health Department has been a step in the right direction and we want to continue to explore other alternatives.
The TGB has a concern that the extreme level of traffic stops that may be perceived as targeting tribal members isn’t the solution in the fight against the drug epidemic, as these traffic stops have been increasing over the past several years on the reservation, drug use continues to increase as well. We have a concern that targeted traffic stops near our commercial center or our casino may not be the answer and those targeted traffic stops could be better served by pulling over vehicles actually leaving known drug trafficking houses.
We are concerned that drug addiction and overdose deaths continues to increase in our community and increased traffic stops are only increasing the jail population with what can sometimes be considered persons who have addiction problems but are not the persons responsible for the influx of drugs in our neighborhoods.
There's concern that our county justice system may be spending too much time and resources on lower-level drug possession offenders and not giving yourselves the ability to focus on serious offenders and drug traffickers.
Addressing the drug epidemic and resulting increase in crime in our community is a complicated issue and may not be as simple as adding a second judge. This epidemic affects everyone in our county and we encourage our governments to work together in pursuing a solution that works to reduce the jail population, recidivism rates, drug use and addiction, and overdose deaths. We strongly believe in finding alternatives to incarceration, such as treatment options for drug addiction, which more directly targets the actual root cause of the increasing caseload on the Sawyer County Court. We stand ready to sit down with all parties involved to work through the issues of an overpopulated jail and busy workload in the county court. We believe coming together on these complex issues will better serve all of the citizens of our county.