Dane County Jail

A sheriff's deputy checks on inmates in the Dane County Jail. 

STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES

Dane County is growing, as are some categories of violent and property crime in its largest city, Madison.

And yet with the approval of $76 million in county borrowing last month, the county jail is set to shrink by 91 beds, or about 9 percent, as part of a three-year renovation of the facility that is supposed to provide safer conditions for inmates, especially those with mental health problems.

Now begins what is essentially an open-ended experiment to determine whether programs aimed at keeping people out of jail can be successful enough to even further lower — or at least not increase — the number of inmates in a county that already has lower-than-average jail-incarceration rates.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I was concerned,” said Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who noted that his office is limited to programs aimed at keeping people out of jail once they’ve been convicted, and that more will need to be done in the courts, by the district attorney and through community programs to keep people from being convicted in the first place.

“There is no question that additional reform of the entire justice system will be needed to ensure that the smaller facility will be adequate,” said county Sup. Paul Rusk, who chairs the Public Protection and Judiciary Committee. “When the consultants presented before the county board, it was very clear that all parts of the system need additional change.”

Dane County Chief Deputy Jeff Hook said the county is banking on “four big things that let us bring those bed numbers down.”

The first is to have the right kinds of beds for the right kinds of inmates, he said. The renovation will include 128 beds for inmates with medical problems and 64 for inmates with mental health problems specifically. That’s expected to lead to a more efficient apportioning of inmates such that a mentally ill inmate, for example, doesn’t have to be isolated for safety reasons in a space that could accommodate more than one inmate without mental health issues.

The jail’s population has also been relatively flat over the last five to seven years, Hook said, at around 850 to 870 inmates. That’s down from as many as 1,200 10 to 13 years ago, and consultants who worked on the jail renovation plan expect the current numbers to continue for the next five to 15 years, Hook said.

Using electronic monitoring ankle bracelets to keep track of people who otherwise would have to be confined in jail is another key factor in keeping jail numbers down. About 95 people were on the Sheriff’s Office monitoring program as of late last month, Hook said. A separate program, run by the courts, had 130 enrolled as of Thursday, according to circuit court clerk Carlo Esqueda.

And then there are the 28 distinct jail-diversion programs and “strategies” County Board Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan points to. They range from special courts to address crimes by veterans and the opioid-addicted, to initiatives by social service agencies to train inmates for jobs and teach minority parents alternatives to corporeal punishment.

The county has also joined the national, MacArthur Foundation-funded Safety and Justice Challenge, which aims to help local officials lower jail-incarceration rates.

Corrigan pointed to federal data showing people entering U.S. jails have a higher prevalence of mental illness than the population generally, and that more than half of that group also has substance abuse problems. She said county officials expect a report this month from a group of law enforcement officers, social-service workers, mental health providers and residents that will help the county better identify and deploy existing mental health services, and identify gaps in those services.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t appear that the jail is currently housing large numbers of low-level offenders who are unlikely to commit further crimes and who will show up in court if released.

Over the evening hours of Dec. 11-12, for example, 914 people were in jail, records show. But only 18 had bail amounts of less than $500 — suggesting the crimes they were charged with were not serious and the judges who set the bails didn’t believe they posed a threat if released.

Of that 18, eight would not have been able to have been released on bail because they were also being held for other reasons: probation violations, failure to show up at a past court date and being wanted in other jurisdictions. Two were released after posting bail after spending about eight and 2½ hours locked up.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said the county “has not incarcerated people for unpaid fines for years” and that “cases in which community service would make sense are the types of low-level cases that my office is increasingly not pursuing criminally or that are going to be handled” by the county’s Community Restorative Courts.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.