3/19/2013 11:26:00 AM Business Beat: Wise Choice Alternatives offers another option to defendants and courts
Above: Bill and Linda Sutton. Sutton, a former judge, started Wise Choice Alternatives to give individuals with legal problems an option beyond the typical fine, jail time or community service. Submitted photo
Individuals convicted of a crime or a misdemeanor usually have to pay a fine, spend time in jail or serve the community, and most likely are monitored electronically or remain on probation.
Former Williams Judge Bill Sutton started Wise Choice Alternatives (WCA) to give individuals with legal problems an option beyond the typical fine, jail time or community service.
When Sutton started WCA a year and a half ago he decided he wanted to do something that would actually help the criminal justice system, the courts and those with a legal problem.
"By helping the individual we can actually help the entire community and the system to work better," said Sutton. "I looked for something that would make a difference in a life, provide accountability, and wouldn't take any taxpayer money."
Sutton added that he also needed a program that wouldn't take much time from court and jail staff members, and it had to be a program that could be for any kind of offense.
That's when Sutton found the American Community Corrections Institute (ACCI) and its home study course. Lifeskills, Inc., a non-profit corporation dedicated to improving and enriching lives and supporting those who experience mental illness, addiction or developmental disabilities, offers the ACCI home study course.
Sutton then met with the president of Lifeskills and explained his vision to bring the program to the lower courts in Arizona. At that time, a handful of courts already used the program. It has been used in the prison system for years.
"But in the lower courts is where you can make a difference, that's where you see the people, and you can actually make a difference in their lives right now," Sutton said. "Some people need to see a major difference in their lives, other people have just fallen off track and need something to get them back on track."
Currently, there are 31 courts in Arizona that use the WCA program and one court in Kansas. Sutton, who is the Lifeskills Arizona director and president of WCA, said he is looking to further expand in Kansas and in Oregon.
"We've had tremendous results with the program," said Sutton. "The courts seem to really love it, I was a judge for 20 years and sometimes you get tired of all the fines and the jail and occasional probation. You look for something new that will change a life."
WCA requires someone to complete 20 hours of course work in lieu of a fine, probation or jail time. In some cases the defendant has the option to choose to do the program, in others the judge will simply order the defendant to complete the program.
The person completing the course does not buy the materials; he or she pays for the course itself. Sutton owns the materials and sends them to the defendant. The defendant completes the workbooks and other course materials with the help of a "coach." The coach can be a family member, a friend or a fellow inmate.
The defendant must pass a final exam with a 70 percent grade. They send the materials back to Sutton and then Sutton sends the defendant a certificate and notifies the court of either successful or unsuccessful completion of the course.
"It's usually very financially advantageous to go ahead and complete the course," Sutton said. "Plus the recidivism rates are 8-10 percent over the course of three years after the course, we're getting really great evidentiary results with the program."
WCA does have a driver responsibility course for driving with a suspended license or driving at criminal speed. WCA has a total of 13 courses including a substance/alcohol course, an anger management course and juvenile courses among others.
"If you keep doing what you're doing, you're going to keep getting back what you're getting," said Sutton. "It's a way to make a cognitive change. I've done three of the courses myself, I'm going on my fourth, and you know what, I get something from them every time. The cognitive change program is so valuable for not just defendants, but for anybody, these courses can help anybody."
According to Sutton, U.S. jails are full and the cost of housing a prisoner is astronomical. Lifeskills and WCA drastically reduces this cost and saves money for everyone involved by offering courses that the defendant pays for, not taxpayers.
More information about WCA and Lifeskills is available on their respective websites at wisechoicealternatives.com and www.lifeskills.com.