Resurrection Parish hosts MLK prayer service Jan. 19

By Sean Schultz | For The Compass | January 21, 2015

Judge Zuidmulder, keynote speaker, says he dispenses affirmation, not long sentences

ALLOUEZ — Social justice issues that have kept the New York City and Ferguson, Mo., communities at the forefront of news in the past year — after white police officers killed black civilians, leading to mass protests — have also inched their way into the Brown County Circuit Court system.

Changes have been made and will continue, thanks to the efforts of the judges.

Green Bay Circuit Court Judge Donald Zuidmulder greets Rabbi Shaina Bacharach of Congregation Cnesses Israel at a social gathering following his presentation at Resurrection Church in Allouez. He was keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Interfaith Prayer Service held Jan. 19. (Sean Schultz | For The Compass)
Green Bay Circuit Court Judge Donald Zuidmulder greets Rabbi Shaina Bacharach of Congregation Cnesses Israel at a social gathering following his presentation at Resurrection Church in Allouez. He was keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Interfaith Prayer Service held Jan. 19. (Sean Schultz | For The Compass)

Circuit Court Judge Donald Zuidmulder led the charge when he launched the Brown County Drug Court which offered alternatives to multiple prison sentences for local offenders.

Zuidmulder, keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Interfaith Prayer Service, held on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 19, at Resurrection Church, outlined the changes that are occurring among drug and alcohol abusers thanks to this new approach to justice.

Resurrection hosted its first MLK prayer service after the parish joined the ecumenical Gathered in Faith Together (G.I.F.T.) consortium of faith communities. Participants included Cnesses Israel Congregation, First United Methodist Church, Grace Lutheran Church, St. Anne Episcopal Church, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, St. John the Evangelist Church, St. Mary of the Angels Church, St. Norbert College Catholic Church and Union Congregational Church.

The longtime attorney completed law school in 1968 and was Brown County District Attorney for four years starting at age 25. He followed that with 22 years as a private practice defense attorney until 1997, when he was elected to a Brown County Circuit Court judgeship. He hopes to extend his tenure as judge for six years as he seeks reelection.

“Every reference of the Bible talks about justice,” Zuidmulder told the crowd. “I consider myself a disciple of Jesus Christ cleverly disguised as a circuit court judge. I do what I believe is correct and what my faith tells me to do.”

But discharging justice to people he doesn’t know weighs heavily on him. “Your judges have the power to deprive people of their personal liberties … an awesome responsibility.”

As a young D.A., he said, “I was convinced if I was a tough, hard-nosed prosecutor, we would see an end to burglaries, an end to pot smoking.”

It didn’t work.

“You see people at the best of times and at the worst of times, at their lowest moments and at their highest moments. But only God is perfect; we are all imperfect,” he concluded.

Putting offenders on probation often didn’t work, nor did jail time, Zuidmulder said, and he was left wondering, “What can we do to change their behaviors? Are two years in prison enough, maybe four years? We perpetuate and recycle punishment. Is this in all cases just?”

He decided that affirmation of right behaviors is stronger than incarceration. What works, he suggested, is “telling people ‘Yes, you can do this.’ Affirmation gives those people a positive message in their lives.”

He learned about drug courts in Florida in the 1980s. He got involved in his own drug court in 2007.

Eighty percent of those in jails and prisons have dealt with alcohol or drug addictions and mental health problems. His first task when he started the drug court was to identify people who are non-violent offenders. They also must have had experienced no success with incarceration.

Locking someone up is expensive, the judge noted. “A treatment center can do it for a lot less money. They have half the recidivism rate the rest of the system has.” He noted that under traditional methods, the offender typically reoffends within 18 months of their release, an 80 percent recidivism rate. But drug courts contrast that with a 34 to 40 percent recidivism rate.

Drug court requires an offender to undergo four or five drug tests per week. It works, even when many of the offenders have been in trouble due to addictions since they were 13 or 14 years old. Under that system, he tells employers, “I will send you an employee who will be clean.” The court requires workshop attendance and community service.

The national drug courts advise that “we must ask them what made you successful.” The typical response is “they finally had a person in authority telling them they did something good…” They add, “Nobody ever told me that before.”

There are needs for specialized courts that deal with things other than drug and alcohol charges. Zuidmulder said Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kelley oversees “vet court,” meant to help military veterans who are disabled and who get into trouble. The thinking is, Zuidmulder said, “We owe them this. We’ll give them the opportunity to do better.”

In the coming months, Brown County will initiate a mental health court and a heroin court. The former will reconnect people in trouble due to mental illness with their service provider, get them back on their medications. The latter will address what Zuidmulder called “the heroin epidemic.” He cited a recent case in which six people appeared in court after the death of another due to a heroin overdose. “It took that many friends and acquaintances of the deceased before we finally got down to the dealer,” he said.

The judge speaks about his hero, his late father who was a longtime fire chief in Green Bay. “Every night when I walk out of the courthouse, I imagine my father standing at the door as I leave. He says, ‘What were you thinking?’”

“If we have to look away or look down at our feet, we know we haven’t done the right thing.” This “disciple of Jesus Christ cleverly disguised as a circuit court judge” leaves the building with his head held high.

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