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With Wisc. jail $10 million over budget, board’s Black Caucus unveils new plan

The Caucus wants to send jail inmates with severe medical needs to local hospitals, build a smaller jail with fewer beds and call for other reforms to address the jail’s extreme racial disparities

By Lucas Robinson
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wisc. — In a bid to fix a funding gap for the county’s long-stalled jail consolidation project, the Dane County Board’s Black Caucus wants to send jail inmates with severe medical needs to local hospitals, build a smaller jail with fewer beds and call for other reforms to address the jail’s extreme racial disparities.

The latest plan for the jail would build a five-story building with 725 beds and cut proposed acute medical housing on the fourth floor of the tower to free up bed space for the general population, according to the resolution.

Inmates with severe medical needs could be better accommodated by local hospitals than a future clinic in the jail, supervisors said. The jail would still have medical and mental health beds.

The smaller facility would put the project back in budget and cost less to operate once opened, sponsors of the plan said.

“We want to get this building done in due haste,” said Sup. Dana Pellebon, 33rd District.

“This still is a process that will take about four years,” Pellebon added. “In those four years, we can work on criminal justice reform that very clearly will reduce the jail population and reduce racial disparities.”

As of Tuesday morning, 53% of the jail’s population was Black, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office. Dane County is about 6% Black, according to the U.S. Census.

In their resolution, supervisors noted that studies have shown that high incarceration rates for Black people in Dane County is a key driver of the jail’s population.

The latest plan for the biggest public works project in the county’s history comes as Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett announced on Tuesday that he will close part of the jail facility at the City-County Building and transfer inmates to other counties, citing staffing shortages. Long described as inhumane, the closure of the City-County Building facility has been a main goal of the jail consolidation project.

Currently, the board has appropriated $166 million to consolidate its existing jail facilities into a single campus that includes the Public Safety Building and a six-story tower with 825 beds. Supervisors signed off on that plan in March as a compromise because the original scope of the jail, a seven-story tower with 922 beds, had grown $24 million over budget at that time.

But even the compromise plan is now about $10 million over budget, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced in June.

The cutting of another floor prevents the need for more funding or putting a $10 million referendum to voters on November’s ballot, which Parisi wants, according to the plan unveiled on Tuesday.

Supervisors are set to start consideration of the proposal next Monday at a joint meeting of the board’s Public Protection and Judiciary Committee and its Public Works and Transportation Committee, said PPJ chair Richelle Andrae, 11th District.

“It is a serious proposal that deserves serious attention,” Andrae said.

To further combat racial disparities in the jail, the new plan “urges” the Dane County legal system to start an 18-month weekend court pilot program and review how cash bail is used. The resolution further urges the Sheriff to limit the number of federal prisoners to 10% of the jail’s population and wants law enforcement throughout the county to not arrest individuals who report crimes if they are wanted on a warrant for a non-violent crime.

“A lot of the time the eyes are on the County Board to make these changes,” Pellebon said. “We are one part of this equation, and we need the other parts of the equation to work with us.”

Andrae said it’s “reasonable” that the resolution’s co-sponsors are pushing other elected officials to back criminal justice reforms. Something like weekend court appears to have a small impact on the operations of courts and the District Attorney’s Office, Andrae noted.

“I’m trying to evaluate whether this proposal does indeed serve the purpose to leverage those changes or not,” Andrae said.

The supervisors who have been drafting the new plan for the jail include: Pellebon, Sups. Anthony Gray, 14th District; April Kigeya, 15th District; and Jacob Wright, 17th District. In tandem with Tuesday’s announcement, the Black Caucus has launched a website to promote its new vision for the jail.

Last month, Gray successfully got the board to postpone a contract change that would have directed the project’s architect to start designing the version of the jail passed in March so that supervisors could consider the Black Caucus’ proposal.