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Fast-growing Dane County, with more than half a million people, needs a modern jail to help protect the public.

The county also needs a humane and effective jail — one that steers more inmates to better lives.

Several options for improving and consolidating jail functions and services in Downtown Madison are now before the Dane County Board. And the least expensive choice is best for the county’s needs and objectives.

The County Board should approve construction of an eight-story tower behind and connected to the main jail building at 115 W. Doty St.

The price tag of $148 million is disappointing. That cost is almost twice as much as the $76 million plan approved two years ago. Back then, the idea was to add four stories to the main jail to consolidate and improve its functions. But county officials subsequently learned that adding stories to the existing jail, built in 1994, would make it structurally unsound.

As Sheriff Dave Mahoney told the State Journal editorial board recently, the existing jail was built with the ability to add stories in the future. It can hold extra weight. But safety experts today fear a taller jail would sway to the left and right. The original contractor is now out of business, the sheriff said.

So the solution, given the county’s strong desire to rehabilitate — rather than store — offenders, is to build a sturdy tower behind the existing jail in a parking lot along West Wilson Street. That’s the least expensive option consultants came up with after yet another study of how to improve the jail and its functions.

If the county instead chose to renovate existing facilities and build more space elsewhere, it would cost more than $160 million. And constructing a new jail could run as high as $220 million, according to the consultants.

The county must do something because its solitary confinement cells — measuring just 6 feet by 9 feet with one tiny window — are terribly outdated, cruel, dangerous and inefficient. The solitary cells also have been shown to exacerbate the conditions and bad behavior of inmates, especially those with mental illnesses. That’s bad for public safety because most jail inmates will be released back into the public within a few weeks.

Those cells would close for good, under the $148 million proposal the County Board should approve. All jail functions then would consolidate in the existing main jail with the new attached tower.

The improved jail would have medical beds, which are lacking now, as well as room for services to help inmates get drug and alcohol treatment as well as find housing and jobs. Programs to divert non-violent and low-level criminals from jail would continue. Mahoney has for years pushed the use of electronic monitoring for inmates posing little threat to the public.

In fact, county officials plan to reduce jail capacity from 1,013 to 922 no matter which building option is approved. The current jail population is around 750, with an additional 100 out on electronic monitoring.

Dane County needs to move forward with a modern jail that does a better job of promoting safety and rehabilitation. The longer the county waits, the more expensive a fix becomes.

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