Sauk County launches peer support initiative to help curb crime, benefit taxpayers and recovering addicts alike

May 6, 2019

Ryan Ramnarace feels honored to sit at the table and discuss solutions to reduce crime with county leaders, court officials, law enforcement officers and social workers.

Ramnarace is one of two peer support specialists with Sauk County’s Department of Human Services. He wants to be a mirror when speaking to former inmates trying to get their lives back on track.

That’s because he has a criminal justice background, too. He was a juvenile offender at age 15. He served time in a federal prison. He battled drug addiction and came out on the other end.

In one small piece of a larger puzzle that is the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, Sauk County leaders have called on Ramnarace to chair the Sauk County Peer Support Ad-Hoc Committee — geared toward providing peer mentors to former inmates and reducing the likelihood of recidivism and reoffenders.

Ramnarace said Sauk County is among the first governmental bodies in the state to tackle such an initiative, based on a similar model from Pennsylvania and a Yale University study.

“Sauk County is on the vanguard of doing something no other county in the state of Wisconsin has done, and we want to be right there,” Ramnarace said.

Cathy Warwick, deputy director of Sauk County’s health department, said some inmates are released from prison and have broken ties with family, no place to live, no cell phone and no means of transportation.

“People just forget about them,” Warwick said.

These factors increase the risks of repeat customers facing convictions. About 20 percent of convicts are reoffenders, she said.

Helping former inmates successfully re-enter society can save taxpayer dollars, too.

Step one

At the Peer Support Ad-hoc Committee’s first meeting Tuesday in Baraboo, the members collectively agreed to launch the initiative by reviewing a policy manual from a program in Pennsylvania and revise it to fit the needs of Sauk County.

The ad-hoc committee members set a deadline of May 28 to present their revised version of the manual to Sauk County’s Board of Supervisors.

“We’ll start at the beginning and talk through it,” Warwick said to her colleagues.

Sauk County Drug Treatment Court Case Coordinator Beverly Albrecht said she would immediately begin reading and taking note of recommended revisions.

One community member has already expressed interest in helping with the peer support initiative, Wisconsin Department of Corrections probation agent Amanda Moore told the other gathered members.

Moore planned to refer the woman to Ramnarace, who said he could offer some more information and list her as a candidate for drug treatment recovery training.

The wheel turns

The big wheel of government and criminal justice turns, but some pieces of the cog might go unnoticed. Establishing a network of peer mentors who can chat with people convicted of crimes can help guide those people toward living their best life and avoid future incarceration.

“There is life after prison,” Ramnarace said, adding he plans to deliver a speech to inmates in Green Bay Correctional Institution sometime in the near future.

How did he do it?

He stopped breaking laws. He reintroduced himself to his community by going to college and earning top honors as a student. He volunteered in his community and became involved in peer support groups.

Ramnarace grew up in Baraboo, but returning to civilian life in 2015 was a turning point to rebuilding his life and feeling he was part of something bigger than himself for the first time.

“People need to feel connected to the community to be able to have a sense of responsibility toward it,” Ramnarace said, adding that context, education and having a safe place to speak are vital components of the recovery process.

Peer mentors could bring unique insights based on their own lived experiences — be it social work expertise or having prior convictions themselves. Relating to people and simply asking questions about where they want to go and what new choices they could make to positively alter their lives could go a long way.