Program puts criminals at crossroads in life

Notification program aims to curb reoffending rates for criminals
Program puts criminals at crossroads in life

When the 14 individuals in a meeting room at the United Way building leave, their lives will go in one of two very different directions.

The individuals all share one thing in common: They have all been convicted in the past of violent crimes in Dane County. They also have been identified by a committee as being among the most violent and potentially dangerous offenders in the community.

“I didn’t doubt that by the criteria of the program that I earned my way in it,” Jesse Payton said.

Payton served 12.5 years in prison after being convicted on charges of robbery and obstructing a police officer.

“I was a gang member, gang leader, a nuisance to the community and a bully,” Payton said. “That’s who I was man, somebody who was just real bitter inside.”

Payton’s criminal history landed him in Madison’s Special Investigation Unit Notification program. The program started in 2011 as an effort to curb reoffending rates for criminals. According to a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the national criminal reoffending rate is 77 percent.

The SIU notification program works to identify violent offenders in the community. Once identified the individuals are put on notice that their behavior must change or else.

“This is their last chance to make a change and what we’re basically telling them is, if you put it in a nutshell, is your choice is simple. Either we’ll stop your violence or you make choices to stop your violence,” said Lt. John Patterson with the Madison Police Department Special Investigations Unit.

As part of the notification the individuals are seated in a room across the table from police chiefs, sheriffs, county and federal prosecutors, FBI agents, federal marshals and representatives of the Department of Corrections. They are told the agencies are prepared to work together to monitor the offenders and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law if they go back to their criminal behavior.

“They are known to everybody involved in the big picture of what is criminal justice in Dane County, and they are told that when their name comes across they are going to be treated very, very differently than they were before. There won’t be plea deals, there won’t be breaks. That’s because of what they’ve done already in the past that they’ve earned this,” Patterson said.

“It was shocking,” Payton said. “I was offended. I was really offended. I didn’t look anybody in the eye. I held my head down.”

Payton’s head may have been down during the notification, but it didn’t stay there because there is more to the program than a promise to prosecute criminal behavior.

“After they’ve had a very brief amount of time to digest that powerful message, they are offered help,” Patterson said.

And that is what makes the SIU Notification Program different. During the meeting the offenders are introduced to community service providers and volunteers who offer to help them. They let the individuals know they will help find them jobs, homes and transportation. They also work to deal with problems of literacy, drug abuse or mental illness. In short, they offer to help them restore their lives.

“I wanted to at least give it that chance to see what it was about,” Payton said.

“I think Jesse kept an open mind. I think he was willing to listen. I think he was willing to accept the fact that there are things better out there for him than going back to prison,” Patterson said.

That was two years ago.

Today Payton has a good job, a home and is raising a family.

“I think he’d tell you if he stood next to the Jesse of 16 years ago, I don’t think you’d even recognize the same person. You wouldn’t be able to,” Patterson said.

The change is so dramatic that Payton now helps to deliver the notifications to offenders.

“If they decide to go on with their criminal activity after the fact that I was able to inform them of what they are facing, what they are about to go through and how to get through it, then my conscience is clear. I want to give something back. I volunteer my time,” Payton said.

To date, the Special Investigations Unit and Community against Violence have conducted seven notification sessions for 78 offenders. In the three years the program has operated only 22 of the 78 individuals have returned to prison. That represents a 28 percent reoffending rate, compared to 77 percent national rates.

Those 78 offenders were responsible for 2,116 criminal offenses in the community including 455 felonies. They also preyed on 727 separate victims in the community.

The notification program has dramatically dropped the number of victims impacted by these 78 individuals.

“Prior to notification these 78 individuals had 727 victims, individual victims. Post notification we’ve had 13 individual victims,” Patterson said.

While Madison’s program has been extremely successful perhaps the biggest challenge moving forward will be to pay for the success. Five Madison Police detectives monitor the offenders for life, and Community Service Providers and volunteers maintain support for them. As the number of individuals in the program grows, the number of Community Service Providers and volunteers will also need to increase.

Community Service Providers and volunteers wishing to assist the program are asked to contact the Madison Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit.