A Dane County deputy pats down a man before he enters jail through the intake door.  

Dane County is better at limiting its use of jail incarceration than other jurisdictions, suggesting that making further reductions will require new strategies, according to the results of a “stress test” conducted by a national research institute.

The Dane County Criminal Justice Council retained the JFA Institute, a nonprofit agency that assists jurisdictions in implementing more effective criminal justice policies, to better understand the factors contributing to the size and characteristics of its jail population.

Results of the analysis showed that for every 100,000 people, there are 154 people incarcerated in Dane County compared to the 2017 national rate of 229 per 100,000.

“Compared to other national sites, Dane County has done a good job of keeping the jail population fairly low,” Jim Austin, executive director of the JFA Institute, said in a statement.

The analysis also illustrates the large number of people who are booked and released multiple times over a year.

In 2018, 8,543 people were released from the Dane County Jail in a 12-month period. At the same time, the jail recorded over 12,000 releases. The discrepancy between the two numbers reflects people who were booked and released several times in the same year. 

The average length of stay was 24 days while the median stay is 2.6 days, illustrating the large number of people who are booked and released within three days. Most of those released had been charged with misdemeanor or civil level offenses. 

According to the report, a majority of the current jail population are people who have been sentenced or are in pretrial status — people detained in jail prior to adjudication — with a hold or warrant that restricts their release from custody.

Dane County is implementing programs to keep the jail population down. The Community Restorative Court diverts young people from the criminal justice system, and the county is piloting a pretrial risk-assessment tool that is used to assess whether or not a defendant is likely to show up in court or commit a crime while waiting for trial. 

Reducing the jail population is a priority as Dane County approved a jail renovation plan that will decrease the number of beds there from 1,013 to 922.

“We are building a smaller, safer, more humane jail and in order to safely lower our population even more, (it) requires all of us in the criminal justice system working together,” Sheriff Dave Mahoney said in a statement. “Clearly, decisions throughout the entire criminal justice system have an impact on the number of people held in jail.” 

The goal of the study was to see if changes in criminal justice policies, like diversion of jail bookings or case processing modifications, would affect the current size of the jail population without endangering public safety. Because Dane County’s jail population is considered low, reducing the number of people in jail further requires new strategies.

"Ultimately, the most effective way to further reduce the Dane County Jail population would require changes in criminal court processing," the report states.  

This would include reducing length of sentences or expediting transfers to other institutions.

The analysis found that the two largest drivers of the jail population are people who have been sentenced to jail after a period of pretrial detention and people being transferred to other correctional systems. According to the report, changes in criminal court processing for people who have been sentenced to jail and transferred out of jail could reduce their length of stay by an average of seven to 14 days. 

Further reforms could include reducing jail sentences. A reduction in sentence length of 30 to 60 days, which is at the discretion of the circuit courts, would have a "significant impact" on the population, according to the report. In addition, expediting the processing of felony cases in pretrial status and reducing the sentence lengths by 30 days would reduce the current jail population by 20%. 

As part of the study, the JFA Institute reviewed a sample of cases with a focus on why people were released from jail, with key city, county and state criminal justice system officials at the table.

“We need to use this analysis to help us realize more reductions in the number of people in jail,” Mahoney said.

Colleen Clark Bernhardt, Dane County's equity and criminal justice council coordinator, said the analysis provides helpful data and starts a conversation about possible changes in the criminal justice system. 

"Policy, just like the criminal justice system, doesn't just turn on a dime," Clark Bernhardt said.  

Dane County Board Chair Sharon Corrigan said in a statement the results of the “stress test” will help the county move forward but that racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system cannot be overlooked.

“That said, as we take action to reduce our jail population, Dane County must also reduce racial inequity throughout the criminal justice system,” Corrigan said. “Success will be measured not only by the size of the jail population, but also by decreasing the number of people of color who are incarcerated in our county.”

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