Dock Talk: Judge Yackel (Pt 2)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 | by Ben Dryden |


The Dock Talk is a DrydenWire segment where we sit down with a person from our area for a Q-&-A chat at our favorite coffeehouse The Dock Coffee in Spooner, WI. Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with Sawyer County Judge, John Yackel. The following is part 2 of our conversation. You can read Part 1 here.


DrydenWire: In speaking about the current drug epidemic in Part 1 you made reference to treatment options for defendants, such as drug court. What is drug court? How should it work and what impact might such a treatment option have on the drug epidemic?

Judge Yackel: The current drug epidemic has infiltrated into almost every area of our community.  It seems as if these drugs are fueling a significant majority of all the crimes being committed.  Last summer, during a weekend, I signed several search warrants and several probable cause statements.  The common thread between all of these cases was that Meth and Heroin were found on these Defendants.  That was when I realized the true severity of the drug crisis.  It seems strange, but it almost makes me think of the “good ol’ days” when alcohol abuse fueled the majority of the criminal activity.  No doubt alcohol abuse is still a serious problem; however, it is now overshadowed by the scourge of Meth and Heroin.   

There really is no effective way to deal with Meth and Heroin addictions.  The State over the past 25 years has utterly failed our rural communities.  There are no inpatient treatment facilities in our part of the State.  We have a few outpatient treatment and counseling agencies, but it barely makes an impact in the larger picture.  The creation of Drug Court’s throughout the State is the direct result of the lack of funding and the political need to somehow address the problem of drug addiction.  

In basic terms, Drug Court is a court program where Defendants who are on probation are required to participate in the program.  The Drug Court is a “Team” of professionals, consisting of the Legal System (Judge, DA and Defense Attorney), Law Enforcement, Probation and Parole, Counselors, Therapists and Treatment Providers.  Once on probation, each Defendant is assessed and placed on an individualized treatment plan.  Each case is reviewed every one or two weeks.  If there is a lack of compliance, the Team votes to sanction the Defendant which can mean short jail stays.  Or the Team could terminate a participant from the program which would mean a failure of probation and imposition of a significant jail sentence.  

Drug Court is designed to place anywhere from 5 to 15 individuals into the program.  The amount of people that a Drug Court in a small County can handle is limited compared to the numbers I see coming in every week that are drug-related.  Certainly, the caseload in Sawyer County is part of the problem in achieving an effective Drug Court.  I believe Sawyer County needs another Judge because that will increase the ability of the two judges to implement a Drug Court.  Larger Counties, where the caseload is not as severe, have the ability to create and participate in these extra-judicial activities.    

In Sawyer County, every major Drug Court player, (law enforcement, prosecutors counselors etc.) are so inundated with an overload of cases.  It is very difficult to find the time to participate.  While Drug Court certainly is not some magical answer, it does give the individuals who deserve a second chance an opportunity for redemption and success.  

If nothing else, a Drug Court would give the criminal justice system a way of constructively dealing with the present crisis.  Unfortunately, I don’t know what the answer is.  I simply know that it will have to be something dramatic, innovative and wide-ranging.

Q: How important do you believe your role as Circuit Court Judge is in protecting the community that you not only preside over, but live in? 

Without question, a Judge has a tremendous impact in protecting the community.  However, a Judge must also protect an individual’s Constitutional Rights.  There is a balance.  That is why the symbol of the Legal System is a blind-folded person holding the scales of justice. 

In deciding what to do with respect to criminal cases, whether it is setting bonds or sentencing, I rely on the fact that I live in this Community and am raising a family here, just like so many others.  I want Sawyer County’s future to be bright and to always be a place for families.  I want my family to be safe just like I want all the other families to be safe.  

Q: What do you take into consideration when determining what type of bail bond to place on an individual?  

The Wisconsin Statutes allow a Judge to impose a bond for the purposes of assuring the Defendant’s appearance in court.  In my experience, I have seen a wide range of practices when it comes to signature bonds, cash bonds and pre-trial detentions.  The 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits Courts from imposing excessive bonds.  

Wisconsin allows a Judge to consider a wide range of information in setting bond.  The need to protect the public is one of those considerations as well as the strength of the case and the potential penalty the Defendant faces.  I spent most of my legal career in Central Wisconsin.  In Marathon County, $2500 cash bonds were commonplace for Felonies.  Even though I am from Hayward, I did not come from the local legal system.  My legal experience is from outside the area.  I guess you could say I’m a local boy without the local legal experience.  I view that as a positive because I am able to be independent and to do what I think is right rather than to always be business as usual.  

The protection of the public is something I take very seriously and balance that against a Defendant’s Constitutional Rights.  So when someone is charged with a low-level misdemeanor, a signature bond is likely.  On the flip side, the more severe the felony, it is possible that a small, moderate or large cash bond could be imposed.  There is no set formula.  They are heavily fact-based.  In my courtroom, because I do impose cash bonds, those bonds are re-visited on a regular basis to make sure that the level of cash continues to be appropriate.  

One thing I do is to impose daily or random testing requirements for individuals who have drug charges or OWI’s.  If an individual is released from custody, they are required to do this testing and to maintain absolute sobriety.  This way the court can review whether the public is being adequately protected.  If there are violations, they come before the court and very often are taken into custody and placed on a higher cash bond.  The bond testing is designed to protect the public, reduce the population of the jail and to give defendants the opportunity to find help.  If a defendant is able to comply with the absolute sobriety requirement during the pendency of their case, they have something very positive to argue at the time of sentencing if they are eventually convicted.  If they continually fail and continue to use, I am alerted and can deal with that at sentencing.    

Sawyer County is unique in its bond testing requirements.  Many County’s do not deal adequately with bond testing requirements.  Ideally, bond testing should be conducted at the jail and when someone violates the bond, they should be taken into custody immediately. Under the present situation, it may be several days or up to a week before they are taken into custody.  Unfortunately, the system is not designed to respond any quicker.  That is something I would like to change.  

Q: A lot of criticism is expressed regarding the decisions that Judges make, and extending to the legal system as a whole, what are your thoughts on that?

Like everyone, Judges are human and we often make mistakes.  However, if I make a mistake I may ruin someone’s life.  I may harm a child’s future.  I may have a negative economic impact on someone who doesn’t deserve it.  As a judge, I have a strong sense that I can affect a person’s life for good or for bad.  At times it can be an overwhelming responsibility.  Other times, it is incredibly rewarding to think that I am making a positive difference in the life of my community and that the people of this County trust my judgment.  

Having that kind of responsibility, a Judge is rightly subjected to criticism.  Often times I have to make decisions that people don’t like, because the law and justice demand those decisions.  The nature of the system requires that I be criticized.  How many times do both parties come out of court with smiles on their faces?  In an adversarial system, one side has to lose.  So one side will always be critical of the Judge’s decision.  

In the larger sense, people who criticize the legal system in general are often times misguided.  There is usually a lack of understanding how the legal system works.  And then there is almost always a lack of understanding as to why something happened.  It’s not always the public’s fault.  The accuracy of the Press is often times questionable.  Further, during my career, I have found that most prosecutors and Judges do not talk to the Press about anything and never try and explain the legal process.  Of course, there are ethical considerations.  For example, a Judge cannot talk about a specific pending case.  But a Judge can talk about the legal system as a whole and why things work the way they do.  In my view, it is my responsibility to talk with the public and to try and answer questions they may have if I am able.  I believe that I am a very accessible Judge.  People have stopped by, emailed me, texted me, and  Facebook messaged me when they have had questions.  Of course, all those questions are subject to the ethical requirements as I stated before.   The nature of this job can be very isolating and I  want to make sure that I do not become isolated.  I love this community and the people who live here and I would never want to do anything that cut me off from this great community.  

Q: Before we sat down, I asked around about you a little since I didn’t know you at all. Every person that I had spoke to said you were an incredibly engaged Judge. Do you agree with that? 

This question requires me to self-examine how I interact with people when I am on the bench.  That is not always easy because of the nature of the courtroom and my role as a judge.  I do believe that most of the time someone leaves my courtroom thinking they have be treated fairly.  

My desire to be engaged comes from my love for this community.  Many young people who come before me for criminal matters are kids of people I know.  Most of them have familiar last names.  Through this process,  I get to know many of the people in court.   Even though they have made poor choices in life, I can see that most people in the criminal justice system are good people in bad situations.  

In most cases, when I sentence someone, whether it is on probation, to jail or prison, I am rooting for that person to succeed. I usually tell them that.  I never intentionally yell or demean someone.  If they treat me with respect, they will get it from me.  Most people who go to prison will be back in our community someday.  At that moment in their life, they are at their lowest.  I search for a little glimmer of their humanity and the little hope they may have and try to encourage them to make a change.  Who am I to snuff out that little flicker of dignity they may have left?  If they lie to me, they are only hurting themselves.  But if they are telling me the truth and that they want to change, I send them off with words of encouragement and with hope for their future.  I have often found that my words of encouragement are often the first time they have ever heard encouraging words and it brings many of them to tears.  

Q: What is the most stressful part of your role as Circuit Court Judge?

I worry about what is happening to our community, Northern Wisconsin and the entire Country with respect to Meth, Heroin and Fentanyl.  These issues sometimes keep me up at night.  At times I wonder if my job and my daily exposure to the darker side of society causes me to run around like Chicken Little shouting the “the sky is falling!”  Maybe things were always this bad and the only thing that has changed is that I am now the Sawyer County Circuit Judge?  

Unfortunately, I am convinced that the drug epidemic is taking us someplace we have never been before.  In speaking with others Judges and Law Enforcement Officials throughout the State, they are all experiencing the same dramatic increase in drug abuse.  They share similar concerns as I do.  But most of the Judges I have spoken to come from larger and wealthier communities.  If things continue to get worse, it will be the small Counties like Sawyer that will suffer the most.    

Q: Do you enjoy being a Circuit Court Judge?

Despite some of my answers and the problems, we are facing, without question I enjoy being a Circuit Court Judge.  It is an incredible honor and privilege to live and work in the place where I grew up.  Most people still call me “John” or “Yack.”  Off the bench and outside the courthouse, I am the same guy everyone has known for the past 43 years.  

There is a term for someone who becomes a Judge and then forgets who they are and where they come from.  The term is “Robe-itis.”  It applies to someone who thinks they are just a little too important and have become just a little too arrogant.  

The nice thing about living in a community that knows me so well is that I have to be the same person I’ve always been.  If I were to ever act entitled or arrogant, I believe, without question, the people who have known me all my life would call me on it and put me in my place.  It’s also refreshing because I never have to try and be someone I’m not.  

Q: What do you do to relax or unwind?

I wish I had some unique and exciting answers to this question.  The truth of the matter is that I am a very busy person both in my professional and private life.  Unfortunately, my private life can sometimes be just as stressful.  Both my step-sons are in college and law school, so that leaves my wife and my 4-year-old son.  One year ago, my son was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder.  For a time, my wife and I were very worried what this meant. We spent many hours on the road traveling to Doctors and therapists.  Finally, we discovered Nature’s Edge Therapy near Cameron, WI and night has turned into day.  My son is thriving and doing better every day.  My wife deserves all of the credit.  She is an amazing woman who has devoted herself to making sure he is given every opportunity to succeed in this world.  Despite some of these hurdles, I have so much to be thankful for.  He is an intelligent sweet little boy who makes life interesting and keeps us on our toes.  Being a Dad is the greatest job I will ever have.  Watching him grow up and learn is my recreation. 



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