After more than a decade advocating for additional staff, the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office is operating at full capacity.
Wisconsin’s 2019 state budget added 64.95 new prosecutor positions in 56 counties, including 1.5 full time positions in Douglas County. Assistant District Attorney Pete Kruger was hired in April, adding an additional prosecutor.
“I started in the DA’s office in 2004 as a legal specialist,” said Victim Witness Coordinator Jen Stank. “Ever since 2004, I can remember begging for more attorneys and more positions and having that conversation. It was always needed.”
Every criminal, ordinance and county traffic case referred from the police department, sheriff’s office, state patrol, DNR and child support lands in the office, said Mark Fruehauf, Douglas County district attorney.
Having another person, and having everyone working full-time, spreads out the caseload and allows prosecutors to dig into cases to find the best outcome possible.
“A lot of what we can do with the extra personnel is monitor cases as they go,” Fruehauf said. “We can do more to try to figure out what cases are appropriate for a deferred agreement or a sentence that considers an alternative to incarceration as opposed to just putting someone in jail.”
The benefit of that additional person is felt from the start of a case, said Assistant District Attorney Angela Wilson, who joined the office in 2018.
“We do a lot more consultation about our cases before they’re charged, which is really a benefit to everybody involved,” she said. “We don’t clog up the courts with the case that we end up dismissing because the evidence isn’t there. We’re doing a lot of analysis.”
Everyone brings a different perspective, she said.
Prosecutor Chad LaLor, who was hired in 2019, brings 20 years of law enforcement experience to the job. He and Anne Terrien, who was hired in 2017, have past experience as public defenders, as well.
“Being in the public defender’s office, I was having much more frank conversations with the people with substance issues and no job issues,” said LaLor, a former Superior police captain. “I look at those people ... those defendants differently.”
Terrien said it’s about having empathy and trying to look at all options, not just jail, particularly for lower-level crimes.
Kruger is a former English teacher; Wilson brought 20 years of prosecutorial experience with her from Kansas; Terrien was in the supermarket industry before going to law school: LaLor helmed Senior Connections for two years. They make a good team, Fruehauf said.
And having more prosecutors saves time and money.
“I just told the commissioner I loved Pete up in court,” Terrien said. “For the first time since I started, we were able to get a delinquency petition filed without us having to ask for an extension.”
Being able to do two hearings in one prevented human services, law enforcement and the children from having to make a second trip to court. It was made possible, Terrien said, because "I had time."
The new positions have also given prosecutors the necessary time to dig into big, complex cases, Fruehauf said.
Focus on initiatives
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the District Attorney's Office was close to launching a community service program.
“Assuming things get back to normal at some point, I really want to be able to put that back in place as an alternative for some of these lower-level crimes where people can do community service and actually really pay back the community as opposed to sitting in a jail cell or paying fines they can’t pay,” Fruehauf said.
The office is part of a fully-funded treatment court, which has about a dozen people going through it at any given time. They also prosecute people who fail to meet goals in the Pathways to Hope program, which offers first-time offenders treatment instead of charges.
In the future, he'd like to emulate counties that have more of an established evidence-based decision making program that tempers things like setting bail.
“It would be nice in all facets of the system — bail hearings, plea and sentencing hearings — to have as much information as we could get our hands on” Fruehauf said.
Wilson said the current pandemic and the push to keep people out of jail if possible has led to a more measured approach to cases. It involves multiple calls to victims, information gathering and possible referrals to services before deciding whether to put the case into the system, where it takes on a life of its own.
More staff members allow flexibility and time on the front end to talk to victims and get a bigger picture.
“Being able to do it this way, really I think, is leading to better case outcomes for everyone — victims, defendants and the courts,” Fruehauf said.
The office has one other new member. Martina Tendrup was hired last month to work with Stank in the Victim Witness office. The Superior native previously worked with the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse and Domestic Abuse Intervention Program.