By Brandi Makuski
Assistant District Attorney David Knaapen with City Times staff in the City Times newsroom, 73 Sunset Blvd., on Jan. 16. Knaapen, 57, is running for judge of Portage Co. Circuit Court Branch II.
Knaapen and his family live in Stevens Point. He currently serves as a Portage Co. Assistant District Attorney.
The following is a verbatim transcript of Knaapen’s interview.
Q: Why are you running?
A: “With the experience I have, part of that’s something that’s really a necessary thing for someone to be a judge. What I’ve tried to do when I go around to all the village and town boards is to let them know, because most of the public is not in court — they don’t know what a circuit branch judge does. When people hear ‘judge’, the public typically wants to think of the [United States] Supreme Court because that’s what they hear about, that’s what the media talks about. The circuit judge is a trial court judge; that means they’re in court everyday, or nearly everyday, and they’re dealing with rules of evidence, procedural aspects, weighing the credibility of witnesses, listening to both sides of a case and rendering a decision based on the law. Someone asked me at our meet and greet the other day, ‘What are your issues?’ Well, we can’t really have issues; as a person, I may feel a certain way about a law, but I can’t bring that with me on to the bench. I have to apply the law as it is. One of the most disheartening things I’ve heard as a trial attorney is for a judge to say, in open court and on the record, ‘Well, this is a stupid law that the legislature passed, but this is what I have to deal with’. That’s not really appropriate for a judge to say on the bench; not as a judge. Say it at a dinner party, but not from the bench. You have to apply the law and it’s totally inappropriate for a judge to say, ‘I would rule for you but I can’t’, then you’re playing politics. A judge is supposed to be fair. I want to bring that to the bench; I’ve spent 30 years as an attorney doing the things that a trial judge does; I’m in court everyday arguing the facts, weighing the rules of evidence. It’s a natural progression from where I’m at.
Q: How do you compensate for a law that is outdated; some piece of legislation that hasn’t caught up with the times?
A: There isn’t anything that says a judge can’t be a proponent of certain things; if you want to talk about a judge having an impact where maybe the justice system is falling short…what Judge Fleischauer did when working with community members to create JusticeWorks is perfect example. The justice system wasn’t doing what community members thought it should be doing, so they formed JusticeWorks to create alternative sentencing. So it doesn’t mean a judge can’t advocate for certain things, because obviously people would respect what they have to say when they say, ‘This is where things are falling short in the system’, but you can’t do that from the bench. You have to be able to draw that line.
Q: What are your thoughts on alternative sentencing? Is it being effective in the community?
A: “They absolutely are being effective; without them we would be adding to the current criminal population that we have. The alternative sentencing that we have would take people who otherwise would get stuck in probation and the cycle that comes with that; being revoked, being associated with the same people, learning bad habits — the diversion programs we have are getting them out of that, to avoid the creation of that cycle. Programs like the VIP — Volunteers in Probation Program — they’ve been hugely successful in changing people’s behaviors. It shows people there’s another way to live their life. We take them to the technical college and get them signed up for classes; we help them take their first steps into AA or NA, or find a sponsor, or we might even be their sponsor. We’ll help them with their resume. And we’re also looking for modify that in some way to the juvenile court system, but that’s a work in progress.
“The other thing we’re working on, with Portage County, is a drug treatment court. The idea is, simply incarcerating people isn’t dealing with whatever it is that is unlined their addiction program. Incarcerating them gets them clean and sober, but it’s an artificial sobriety — and when they’re released, it’s no surprise they fall back into their old habits. In a drug treatment court, it would help break that connection and give them the tools they need to create healthier relationships and change the things that are underlying their addiction. Alternative sentencing is something we need to look at more because right now we have two options: fines, which does no good because the legislature just keeps adding to the cost and people can’t afford to pay them, or jail, probation or prison. Those things are fine as a punishment, but they’re not getting at whatever brought that person into the judicial system.”
Q: In your experience in the Portage County DA’s Office, is there a common theme you’re seeing in reference to cases you try?
A: “I wouldn’t say a theme, but about 75 percent of the defendants come from a home with drug and alcohol problems, and — not to paint too broad a brush on it — families who are reliant on some type of government assistance, and family members without an established work history. That’s what their parents did, and they don’t know any better. So it’s a matter of trying to break that cycle, which is one thing we’re looking at with our Drug Court Work Group.”
Q: Is there a certain overlap between drug and alcohol-related cases and those involving mental illness?
A: “We identify that’s an issue. So, somebody with mental health issues our first reaction wouldn’t be to propose a long term of incarceration because that’s likely to be more detrimental to them getting into to see a counselor or getting the medication they need. It’s likely to be more disruptive. We try to be sensitive to those needs, and that’s another thing the judge has to do; look at what drove the defendant’s behavior, and determine what’s an appropriate sentence and how it will impact the victim, but also the defendant and the defendant’s family, and any impact on the community. And I’m the only candidate who’s already been doing that for almost 30 years, and that’s what makes me qualified to be judge.”
Q: Explain to me the reasoning behind plea agreements, especially with some of the defendants we’re seeing coming back time and time again.
A: “As a judge, going through a plea colloquy with the defendant, one of the first things the judge tells that defendant is, ‘You understand as a judge I have not been involved with these plea negotiations, and therefore I’m not bound by those plea negotiations, and as a judge, I can impose any sentence I think is appropriate under the law, regardless of a plea agreement.’ So I think that holds judges accountable; there are million reasons why attorneys negotiate a plea, which may never be known by a judge. But if the judge hears an agreement he feels is not appropriate, it’s his job to say he’s not going to follow the recommendation. All we can do as attorneys is make our recommendation; the judge’s job is to say what he or she thinks the right sentence is, whether they agree with the attorneys or not. Oftentimes, I think judges do a disservice when they say, ‘I would have given this defendant more time in prison, but because that’s all the parties are recommending, that’s all I’m going to order’.” Judges aren’t supposed to be a rubber stamp.
“But plea agreements sometimes are done to save time. The Legislative Audit Bureau did a study on what they think the optimum number of cases are, and their number was around 200 cases for an attorney to do a proper job. We presently carry over 400 cases at any given time. Look at the public defender’s office- they have a similar overwhelming caseload they have to deal with. But cases continue to come in, so without plea negotiations, there’d be no way for us to deal with those and get them through the system in an appropriate way.”
Q: If you were elected, how would you hold yourself accountable to the voters?
A: “I think I’ve already started doing that, and I’ve built a framework, ethically and personally, for me to do that. One of the candidates has made an issue of the fact that they’re the only elected official running for judge, and therefore they know how to be accountable tot he public. But if you’re in the criminal justice system, and you’re dealing with victims and witnesses and defendants, there’s already real accountability there. Our office has meetings with victims all the time; if they don’t like what we’re doing, they’re very vocal. I am already being held accountable to the public by their perception of what they think I’m doing with a case in that context. I’ve spent 30 years being an attorney being held accountable. Every judge I know has developed that same mentality, an attitude, based on those interactions with victims and defendants. And if the public doesn’t react to what the judge is doing by voting them out at election time, I think the judges have to assume the public agrees with, for the most part, what they’re doing.”
Q: Anything else you’d like to discuss, something I didn’t ask?
A: “One of the things we’ve had a lot of questions about in our campaign is the question of party affiliation. People are so used to partisan politics than when we approach them and say it’s nonpartisan, they don’t want to hear that. They want to know what you’re politics are and what your affiliation is. When we went out to get signatures, oftentimes the first question is, ‘Democrat or Republican?’. When you have one candidate who is clearly tied to a party, it makes it difficult to approach the rest of the public and get them to understand this is nonpartisan. I was invited, along with all the other candidates, to a meeting of the [Portage Co.] Republican Party. We have not received a similar invitation from the [Portage Co.] Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party is only hearing from one candidate about one candidate’s campaign and what that candidate is doing. I’ve had a number of people come up to me and say they don’t appreciate the party being as involved as they are in this campaign, because they know it’s supposed to be nonpartisan. The problem is, partisan politics become so divisive; if I don’t stand up and scream to the hilltops that I am a Democrat or a liberal, people will assume that I’m something else without taking the time to find out what. I want them to know not what I am politically, because that doesn’t have any impact on what I’d do as a judge. I don’t want people assuming what party I belong to or not, because it has nothing to do with being a judge. When I’m on the bench, I follow not what the Portage County Republican Party wants or the Portage County Democratic Party wants, I follow the law.”