Heidi Wegleitner: Why I'm voting 'no' on the Dane County jail expansion

Heidi Wegleitner: Why I'm voting 'no' on the Dane County jail expansion

Dane County jail cell

The City-County Building portion of the three-site Dane County Jail system would be closed, with services consolidated at the nearby Public Safety Building, under a $76 million plan in County Executive Joe Parisi's budget. The 1950s-era jail in the City-County Building would be closed under the proposal. 

I intend to vote "no" on the jail proposal in the capital budget. The jail expansion project carries a total cost of $108 million when you include the debt service, which will be $5.4 million per year for 20 years. That amounts to over $25 per average Dane County household every year for 20 years. This is not the right time to be investing this massive (compare it to the courthouse at $44 million in 2006) amount of money into a broken criminal justice system.

I support closure of the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building because the conditions are inhumane, but we should pursue a better plan, which includes: 1) aggressively funding alternatives to reduce our jail population by treating persons with mental illness and addiction disorders in community-based programs instead of jail; and 2) vastly expanding our effort to increase access to affordable housing, prioritizing permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless.

In July 2012, Dane County recognized housing as a human right and since that time we've made incremental progress on funding new, affordable housing development and purchases for housing people with mental illness and those returning to the community from incarceration. After over five years of planning and development, we’re finally opening the long-awaited homeless day resource center.

Rethke Terrace, our first joint Madison-Dane County permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless and veterans, opened in June 2016. In a short period of time, 60 people moved off the streets and into housing at Rethke. That said, as of last month we had 784 single persons on Dane County's Homeless Services Consortium ("HSC," our federal Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care program) Priority List for Housing. This includes 42 homeless veterans, 268 chronically homeless singles, and 71 homeless youth (18-24). Supervisors have been periodically briefed on the HSC Zero Initiative and I firmly believe we should use the 2018 budget process to "budget for zero" by significantly expanding our supportive housing initiatives to get to "functional zero" (where our number of available units are equal to the number of people on the priority list) for veterans, the chronically homeless, and youth.

As part of our HSC HUD point-in-time count, we learned that 130 people in jail were homeless prior to entering. It is estimated that up to 22 percent of those in the Dane County Jail are there because they are unable to pay the required bail to get out. We know from our jail consultants that about 40 percent of persons incarcerated in the county jail are on psychotropic medications for a mental health diagnosis. We know that our racial disparities in arrests and incarceration are up there with the worst in the country.

The county’s paid consultants told the County Board in June that we're “doing a great job" when it comes to incarceration and our jail population. I was shocked. Did they ask communities of color — profiled, over-policed, and disproportionately arrested — this question? Did they ask the families of persons jailed because of a crisis related to mental illness or substance abuse disorder? Did they ask homeless services providers who are struggling to find housing and supportive services for the 784 homeless singles on our HSC Priority List?

Dane County prides itself on being progressive and innovative. We recently established the Tamara Grigsby Office of Equity and Inclusion and expanded our capacity in the County Board office to engage in systems change to combat racial disparities. We’ve partnered with the Arnold Foundation and Harvard University to reform pre-trial release. Thanks in large part to the leadership of Supervisor Shelia Stubbs, we launched — and then recently expanded countywide — the Community Restorative Court to divert young adults from the formal criminal justice system. Mead and Hunt, our jail consultants, didn't even factor the restorative court into their modeling to project our jail population. Despite this significant work and the additional recommendations of our Resolution 556 working groups, the consultants didn't factor in any policy and practice changes to divert more people from our jail over the next 50 years.

Over the last 15 years, the Dane County board has received dozens of strong recommendations for reducing our jail population and expanding community-based recovery initiatives. Most of these recommendations remain unfunded, collecting dust on a shelf in the County Board office. Yet, during that same time, over $65 million of human services revenue has been returned to the general fund (so it can fill holes in other areas of the budget, like overtime for sheriff's deputies) rather than being reinvested in human services to fund recommendations that would advance criminal justice reform and reduce our jail population. Each and every one of these recommendations to divert people from jail should be exhausted before we move forward with the jail expansion project as currently proposed.

One of the most promising recommendations for keeping people with mental health crises out of jail is a crisis restoration center. In fact, thanks to strong advocacy from mental health advocates, including Supervisor Carousel Bayrd, County Executive Parisi included funding for a study of the potential benefits of a crisis restoration center in his budget proposal. I think the benefits are obvious and this money could be used to actually begin the planning and development of the center. This is yet another reason why it is the wrong time to push forward the $108 million jail expansion project.

Why would we spend $108 million to incarcerate more people of color, more people with unmet health care needs, and more people who are poor and/or homeless? Instead, we need to make real, substantial investments into alternatives to incarceration, like permanent supportive housing and expanded options for behavioral health crises and meaningful access to ongoing treatment and support.

Madison and Dane County usually talk a good game when it comes to equity and inclusion. The 2018 Budget processes require us to put our money where our mouths are. Let’s fund housing, not handcuffs. Health care, not jail cells.

Heidi Wegleitner is the Dane County Board supervisor for District 2.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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