As the coronavirus pandemic has changed how Dane County’s criminal justice system operates, Supervisor Elizabeth Doyle hopes to halt plans for a new $148 million jail facility while implementing recommendations to decrease the incarcerated population and minimize the role of law enforcement.
Doyle, who also chairs the county’s Health and Human Needs Committee, said the pandemic has revealed flaws in the criminal justice system related to racial inequities. The District 1 supervisor said she wants the Dane County Board to consider initiatives like implementing virtual weekend court and lowering the average length of stay.
“It’s important to take a look at how we’re providing services and see what we can do to shift focus from the criminal justice system to some more human services-based interventions to support folks,” Doyle said.
As cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have increased in Dane County since March, the jail has implemented measures to keep the jail population lower as a way to prevent the spread of the disease.
According to sheriff's office spokesperson Elise Schaffer, the jail population on March 1 was 735 compared to 507 on July 22.
“I think what we’ve seen in light of the COVID pandemic is that players throughout the county — be it the judges, municipal law enforcement and the sheriffs have really stepped up in unprecedented times to take thoughtful approaches at this time,” Doyle said.
However, Sheriff Dave Mahoney said the ways that the criminal justice system have adapted to the pandemic are not sustainable. Pointing to a two-year backlog of cases and that some people have been ordered to jail at some point in the future, Mahoney is concerned there will be overcrowding after the pandemic concerns ease.
“I’m just hopeful that when the numbers come in that we can keep people here in Dane County and that we don’t have to ship out of county,” Mahoney said.
The Health & Human Needs Committee is expected to take up the resolution at its remote meeting Thursday at 5:45 p.m.
Dane County’s jail project has been discussed for years and is currently slated for construction in spring 2021, according to Mahoney.
Ultimately, the $148 million jail project will shut down the part of the jail located on the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County building, vacate the Ferris Center on the south side and house all jail facilities downtown. The project includes renovating the Public Safety Building, 115 W. Doty St., and building the tower next to it on West Wilson Street.
It would also reduce the number of beds by 91 — from 1,013 to 922.
Advocates of the project argue a new facility is needed to shut down unsafe floors in the City-County Building, just one component of the county’s three-facility jail system.
In December 2016, consultants recommended closing the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building with “due haste” because of the dangers they pose to both inmates and staff. Mahoney said he worries about someone “losing their life in that jail.”
“We’ve had experts as well as (the Department of Corrections) say we need to vacate that jail in due haste,” Mahoney said. “We’re setting ourselves up for a pretty good lawsuit should we fail to do so.”
In the 2018 budget, Dane County approved a $76 million plan that would have brought all jail operations into an expanded Public Safety Building. In June 2019, Dane County approved additional funds — totaling $148 million and nearly double the cost of the original plan — to construct a tower next to the Public Safety Building, 115 W. Doty St., in a county-owned parking lot facing West Wilson Street instead of building on top of it.
“The longer we wait, the higher that price is going to increase,” Mahoney said.
Dane County had hoped to build an expansion on top of the Public Safety Building but learned in October 2018 that the building at 115 W. Doty St. cannot hold additional weight, though it was built in the early 1990s with the expectation that it could.
An investigation revealed that the county has “no viable cause of action against any party for failure of the building design to meet expectations 26 years after completion of construction.”
Doyle outlined several recommendations for Dane County to pursue to address jail population and the role of law enforcement in the proposed resolution.
Some of them — including eliminating a work release program offered by the jail and relying instead on Human Services programs, implementing a mental health court and utilizing restorative courts, align with a criminal justice reform “action plan” put forward by Supervisors Analiese Eicher, District 3, and Shelia Stubbs, District 23.
While not a comprehensive list, Doyle said the initiatives included in the resolution are a “a first step of calling on the board and the other stakeholders to continue this work.”
Other recommendations include:
- Adding representatives of communities of color to the Criminal Justice Council
- Developing sentences that li.mit incarceration and instead focus on restorative justice that help victims and the community.
- Reducing the use of the Dane County jail for the housing of probation and parole holds and urging the state to speed up their own adjudication and eliminate jail time for minor probation and parole offenses.
- Reviewing charging and sentencing decisions against leading practices nationally in order to reduce the amount of jail time recommended.
- Prioritizing the writing of tickets instead of jail for minor offenses by local law enforcement.
- Creating inventory of local law enforcement use of force policies throughout the County.
- Changing the incentive system in the criminal justice system from punitive to restorative by providing transparency in the criminal justice system.
- Continuing to increase the use of electronic monitoring beyond the current number.
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