Prison or treatment? Prosecutor's trying a different approach in placing heroin involved suspects

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- They're all part of a massive heroin bust, but prosecutors say their hope is that some of the nearly 50 suspects will not go to jail. They say they want to send the dealers to prison and they want users to get treatment.

On Friday afternoon, Judge Ellen Brostrom presided over a different kind of hearing.

"What research has shown us is the recidivism rate is greatly reduced for those who have been through treatment programs rather that incarceration, so they're not coming back through our criminal justice system, which is costly," said Drug Court Coordinator, Carol Carlson.

Drug treatment court offers non-violent, non-dealers a chance to complete a treatment program that will allow the offender to avoid jail time and a conviction.

"We're not naive enough to think this is gonna stop heroin use in our city, but this is one approach we're taking to it, a very concerted, unified approach that balances everything," said John Chisholm, Milwaukee County District Attorney.

On Wednesday, November 12th, Chisholm announced the arrest of 48 people following a heroin bust targeting an organization that operated on the city's east side -- and allegedly distributed heroin all over southeastern Wisconsin. Chisholm says prosecutors will try a different approach -- prison for the dealers and treatment for the users.

"We will determine what's the approach response from the system but I anticipate a significant number of them will be directed to our drug treatment program," said Chisholm.

Milwaukee County has had a drug treatment court since 2009. Its coordinator, Carol Carlson, says while its taxpayer-funded, the program saves public dollars.

"One year prison is approximately $33,000. Our program is 12-18 months and our average cost is $10,000," said Carlson.

Carlson knows critics will call this a soft approach to the crime. She disagrees, saying the weekly drug tests, meetings, and hearings set high expectations.

"They know the consequences and they know it could be a jail sentence or they're revoked from the program," said Carlson.

In the Milwaukee County Drug Court, participants have to meet with their case manager at least twice a week. They take three drug tests each week, and they have a weekly court hearing.

The drug court says 78% of those who've entered the program have not been arrested since.

Related stories to the massive heroin bust:

Dozens arrested after massive investigation into heroin trafficking

Five suspects involved in heroin bust appear in court, all plead not guilty