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Dane County Board passes major criminal justice reform package
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Dane County Board passes major criminal justice reform package

Public Safety Building

A Dane County criminal justice reform package passed Thursday aims to reduce racial disparities and develop alternatives to incarceration beyond just sending people to the Dane County Jail, part of which is seen above at 115 W. Doty St.

The Dane County Board on Thursday approved a 21-part criminal justice reform package aimed at reducing racial disparities and creating alternatives to incarceration.

The long list of initiatives includes a commitment to concrete projects, such as the development of a mental health crisis center and a community justice center, as well as recommended changes for law enforcement, the court system and the state Department of Corrections.

“There’s different pieces of this that are able to be driven and implemented by the County Board and others that we see as connected that we are recommending to our partners,” said County Board Chair Analiese Eicher, who introduced the package along with Sup. Shelia Stubbs, 23rd District.

Also Thursday, the County Board voted 33-3 to keep the number of board members at 37 instead of reducing the seats to 35.

The criminal justice reform package comes after a summer of protests against racism and police brutality prompted by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Protesters have called on those in power to make systems more equitable and find alternatives to policing, especially for people of color and those experiencing mental illness.

“All of the protests that I’ve gone to, I hear communities say, ‘Less talk, more action,’” Stubbs said. “These alternatives are actionable steps.”

But some members of the public who spoke at Thursday’s board meeting said the package doesn’t go far enough because it fails to halt the $148 million Dane County Jail reconstruction project.

“The community needs you to cancel the jail project immediately,” said Lev Simmons, a member of the local activist group Socialist Alternative.

The jail plan includes building an eight-story tower on the parking lot behind the Downtown Public Safety Building jail and closing two jail facilities that Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney has said are outdated, dangerous and inhumane.

Sup. Yogesh Chawla, 6th District, proposed an amendment that would have delayed the jail renovations until the design team presents a plan to keep the project to its budget — it’s running over by millions — and adapted it so that space for beds can be converted to programming space.

But supervisors rejected the amendment on an 11-25 vote in part because the project has already been delayed so architects can ensure it comes in at or under the $148 million budget.

Residents were also frustrated that some of the language in the resolution was changed from “demanding” action from law enforcement, the courts and other groups to “encouraging” or “urging.”

Stubbs, however, said the County Board does not have that power. “We cannot demand they do things, but we can encourage them,” she said.

Mental health

One of the cornerstone initiatives in the package is the development of a Mental Health Triage and Restoration Center, which would serve as an alternative place for people to be taken when experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Our officers, deputies, they know that not everyone needs to be taken to jail,” Eicher said. “But right now their options are jail or the emergency room.”

Individuals would be able to seek walk-in mental health services, be referred by a community partner or be brought in by law enforcement.

Last month, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Eicher committed to providing $300,000 in the 2021 county budget for the center.

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The package passed Thursday sets the goal of having a site identified and plans created for the center in the next six months, and for the center to open by 2023. It also asks several groups to start work on the development of the center, including design plans, choosing the services that will be provided and gathering community input.

A related measure in the package commits the County Board to pursuing a partnership with the city of Madison to create a mental health first responder pilot program.

The pilot project would be modeled after similar initiatives in other cities, such as the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, in which a team consisting of a medic and a social worker respond to some mental health 911 calls.

Stubbs noted that police do not need to be called for every emergency.

“If a person is having a crises, a mental health breakdown, why are we calling law enforcement? We should be calling social workers. We should be calling counselors,” Stubbs said. “We should be getting them the services they need for mental health, not incarcerating them.”

The county also encouraged the courts to create a Mental Health Court.

Other initiatives

Another major proposal is the creation of a Community Justice Center, which would provide court and other criminal justice-related services in the community instead of the more formal setting of the courthouse.

“It’s not intimating,” Eicher said. “It’s rooted in people.”

The center would include a community court and services in education, housing, peer mentoring and restorative justice. Other aspects of it are still taking form.

The package asks a subcommittee of the county’s Criminal Justice Council to continue developing the center and make recommendations on services, site options, costs, potential revenue sources and community engagement by June.

A related measure commits to expanding use of the existing Community Restorative Court.

Many of the other initiatives ask criminal justice leaders to review changes that were made during the COVID-19 pandemic and explore whether they could become long-term reforms.

“What we saw at the beginning of the pandemic was this amount of collaboration and innovation within the criminal justice system that we had never seen before,” Eicher said.

Among changes that could be continued after the pandemic are: limiting arrests, having weekly meetings to reduce the jail population, digital meetings for court and holding parole and probation revocation hearings outside of the jail.

The Department of Corrections, judges, the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the clerk of courts and local law enforcement will also be asked to outline other changes that could be continued.

Other initiatives include urging the collection of data on traffic stops broken down by race, the publication of law enforcement’s use-of-force policies throughout the county, posting of incarceration statistics, including by race, on the county’s website, a review of jail-related fines and the development of a plan for digital weekend court.

“Keeping the status quo is not an option,” Stubbs said.

Pain and protest: Madison responds to the police killing of George Floyd

Pain and protest: Madison responds to the police killing of George Floyd

Protests erupted across the country, including Madison, to condemn the police-related death of a Minneapolis man May 25. Here's a look at local coverage so far.

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In the wake of COVID-19, riots and looting they're asking the street be turned into a temporary pedestrian mall, that subsidies be offered to new tenants filling vacant spaces; outdoor cafe and restaurant spaces be expanded and safety measures improved.

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