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While there are other examples of community restorative courts around the country, there aren’t many. And by necessity, each community pretty much starts from scratch. Dane County Department of Human Services hired Ron Johnson as the first community court coordinator.
When the position was first broached with him, Johnson was skeptical he would be hired. “I was like, ‘Get out of here. I don’t know how to do it, and I’m an outsider,’ ” he says. Johnson was in Milwaukee at the time, where he had been a schoolteacher, ran an anti-gang program, worked for the Private Industry Council and most recently worked for former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice and Marquette University professor Janine Geske as a community resource director on restorative justice.
As a young person he was also involved with a street gang and joined the Black Panther Party.
“I’ve been there on the Black Lives Matter side—and in a big way, I still am,” says Johnson. But in thinking about the prospect of running Dane County’s first CRC, it occurred to him, “All the stuff that I was doing all those years [and throughout] my career, it seems like it almost prepared me to do what I’m doing now.”
“We’re walking on new snow” is the way Johnson described the CRC at his very modest office at Centro Hispano on West Badger Road on Madison’s south side. The process of hiring a newly approved social worker has begun, but as of early December, Johnson was the only paid employee. He has three interns and 106 volunteer peacemakers—“So we’ve got an army of people trained to restore the justice system,” he says. He talks about the cases that have been brought to his office as if he has a personal connection to each of them. “So far, we’ve worked with 102 cases. We have 21 open cases right now, 77 completed, three opted out and we’ve only had one in three years that we terminated, and he moved out of town,” Johnson said during an interview in mid-September. Johnson appears invested in these young people and the citizen volunteers he has personally recruited to be trained to serve as peacemakers. “I think the reality of the program is winning people over,” he says.
It is certainly winning support from more community advocates, including Dane County officials who pledged additional funding to expand the court, and from some national sources as well. On Jan. 31, 2017, Dane County was selected as one of 20 jurisdictions nationally that year to receive a $50,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The grant was made possible through the Safety and Justice Challenge Innovation Fund, meant to reduce incarceration and racial and ethnic disparities in their local justice systems. But in June 2016, the CRC was flying low on the broader public’s radar. Then came the Genele Laird case. And that changed everything.