How One County Board Supervisor will Vote on the Jail

Posted October 6th, 2017 @ 6:35 AM by

And why. My county board supervisor was kind enough to spell out all her reasons why voting for the $108M jail makes no sense . . . yes, its really $108M.

Heidi Wegeleitner, who I am proud to call my county board supervisor, sent this out to several neighborhood and advocacy listserves last night.

I intend to vote NO on the jail proposal in the capital budget. The jail expansion project carries a total cost of $108M when you include the debt service, which will be $5.4M per year for 20 yrs. That amounts to over $25 per average Dane Co household per year for 20 years. This is not the right time to be investing this massive (compare Courthouse at $44M in ’06) amount of money into a broken criminal justice system. I support closure of the 6th and 7th 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 persons with mental illness and persons 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. Retake 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 have 784 single persons on Dane County’s Homeless Services Consortium (“HSC”, our HUD Continuum of Care) Priority List for Housing. This includes 42 homeless veterans, 268 chronically homeless singles, and 71 homeless youth (18-24 yrs). Supervisors have been periodically briefed on the HSC Built to 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, chronically homeless, and youth.

As part of our HSC HUD point-in-time (PIT) count, we learned that 130 persons in jail were homeless prior to entering. It is estimated that 22% of the persons in Dane County Jail (DCJ) are there because they are unable to pay the required money-bail to get out. We know from our jail consultants that about 40% of persons incarcerated in DCJ 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 their 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 (CRC) to divert young adults from the formal criminal justice system. Mead and Hunt, our jail consultants, didn’t even factor the CRC 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 dollars 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 Sup. 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 $108M jail expansion project.

Why would we spend $108M to incarcerate more people of color, more people with unmet healthcare 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.

In solidarity,

Heidi Wegleitner
Dane County Board, D2

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