A new report offers more than 30 recommendations intended to combat racial disparities and mental health problems at the Dane County Jail, but after years of frustration, members of the work groups that crafted the recommendations are calling for officials to take action.
The report, the culmination of four months of work by three independent groups, includes recommendations relating to how long inmates spend in jail, alternatives to arrest and incarceration and how best to deal with mentally ill offenders.
Each work group included about a dozen citizens who worked with county staff and facilitators. Participants were selected from about 130 applicants, including members of prominent groups seeking criminal justice reform such as the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition (YGB), the Justified Anger Coalition and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In a cornerstone of the report, all three groups agreed the county should collect and monitor more data on race, gender and ethnicity to help pinpoint and address areas of racial disparities in its criminal justice systems.
One work group studying alternatives to arrest and incarceration sought more data on why people are arrested, what charges are filed by prosecutors and who is offered alternatives to incarceration.
Another group studying the length of jail stays has asked that more data be collected on the racial makeup of offenders found eligible for bail and bail amounts, who is able to post bail and who is released on signature bonds. The group also asked for better tracking of the average amount of time people spend in jail, either because they’ve been sentenced there or are awaiting trial.
The mental health work group sought demographic breakdowns of diagnoses of mental health and substance abuse disorders among jail inmates. It also asked for figures on the use of solitary confinement, broken down by gender, race, frequency of use and length of time spent in solitary confinement.
“That overriding theme of more data is critical,” said Dane County Public Protection and Judiciary Committee chairman Paul Rusk. “We need to know who is in the jail and why they are in the jail so we can all agree on that.
“It appears that a lot of people are in there because they just don’t follow their court dates. They are nonviolent. The jail is supposed to be for public safety.”
The groups also agreed the county should intensify its efforts to hire minorities and provide training to make employees aware of personal biases and improve “cultural competence” in working across racial and ethnic boundaries.
A recent State Journal review of two years of Madison Police Department arrests found whites were arrested at a rate of 2.6 arrests per 100 white residents annually. African-Americans were arrested at a rate of 27.6 arrests per 100 residents each year — more than 10 times the rate of whites. Hispanics were also more likely than whites to be arrested.
The data showed the city’s black arrest rate was more than three times higher than the national rate. The national numbers are not directly comparable to the rates of arrest the State Journal found, as they do not take into account arrests of people who are of Hispanic origin — a distinction of ethnicity, not race.
Most Hispanics are instead counted as white in the national data.
With arrest disparities in Dane County far wider than national rates, some work group members expressed skepticism that their work would actually be implemented.
Jerome Flowers, who served as Tony Robinson’s family spokesman while authorities reviewed the fatal officer-involved shooting, was on the alternatives to arrest and incarceration work group. He was impressed how the process brought together a “diverse group of expertise and philosophies on how to reduce disparities,” but said that without set mechanisms to ensure implementation, he’s still uncertain what the impact of his work will be.
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“If two factors — data analysis and accountability — are missing, it’s hard to be overly optimistic,” Flowers said. “The problem is the people pushing the agenda have no authority to move the agenda forward.”
YGB member Eric Upchurch also lauded the process but said he too has concerns whether the goals will be met.
“The recommendations themselves are attainable; the issue is motivation,” he said. “Now, do I have hope? Absolutely. The conversations that we’re having now, in many ways they are the conversations we’ve had for decades. But they’re also different in many ways because there are now more people talking about this and there is now more of a desire to at least look like we’re making a difference.”
Lindsey Draper, a Milwaukee lawyer who has served as an assistant district attorney, a public defender and as disproportionate minority contact coordinator for the state’s Office of Justice Assistance, headed one of the work groups. He said with extensive amounts of county time and money invested into the topic, he’s certain that county officials are serious about tackling disparities.
“There were people who were associated with Dane County, who were assigned to work with us to make sure we had everything we needed,” Draper said. “That doesn’t sound to me like the activity of someone who doesn’t intend to do this.”
Recommendations for improving the jail follow years of discussion about the condition of the Dane County Jail.
The jail is currently housed in both the City-County Building and the Dane County Public Safety Building. The portions are connected by a tunnel under South Carroll Street.
Last year, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney extensively lobbied County Board members to consider building a new jail. He pointed to numerous safety problems in the jail’s oldest portion, which is housed in the top two floors of the City-County Building. The 1950s-era cell blocks include now irreplaceable locks that have routinely malfunctioned, leaving inmates trapped for hours.
In the City-County Building, suicide attempts happen with some regularity — the latest thwarted by deputies earlier this week. Cell doors in that portion of the jail are still made of the long-abandoned metal bars, which provide suicidal inmates an anchor point for tying themselves up.
Neither portion of the jail is up to modern standards for monitoring inmates, leaving many in solitary confinement where staff are only able to check on them during hourly walk-throughs.
But with a price tag estimated around $150 million, Mahoney’s plea found little political will and was not included in County Executive Joe Parisi’s 2015 capital budget, forcing the sheriff to ask for renovations instead.
In May, the Dane County Board unanimously approved a resolution aimed at comprehensive jail reform, rather than expansion. The resolution created the work groups.
Mahoney did not respond to requests for comment on the groups’ recommendations.
The work group facilitators will present the report to the county’s Public Protection and Judiciary Committee at 5:15 p.m. Monday at the Alliant Energy Center.
Rusk said a consultant will use the report to help county officials work toward implementing some of the reforms.