Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.

Public Safety Building

The Dane County Jail is spread across three facilities: the City-County Building, Public Safety Building, seen above at 115 W. Doty St.; and the work-release Ferris Center near the Alliant Energy Center. 

As Dane County continues revising designs for a $148 million jail project, a county committee asked for smaller facility options and urged the sheriff’s office to add criminal justice and racial justice reforms to the plans. 

“Things are different than two years ago,” said District 11 Supervisor Richelle Andrae, referencing the original vote to embark on the jail project in 2018. “It is a pause to evaluate.” 

However, the resolution recommended Tuesday by the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee on a 4-2 vote, with one supervisor absent, would not halt work on project contracts that are already underway even though the resolution calls to “immediately suspend all planning, design, architecture, and construction of a new jail facility.” 

According to Carlos Pabellon, an attorney for Dane County, the resolution "sets up a direct conflict" between its intent and the current jail project contracts in place.

"At this point, the administration of those agreements fall squarely within the purview of the Sheriff's Office and can't be upended by the resolution," Pabellon said in an email. 

The committee amended the original resolution, sponsored by District 1 Supervisor Elizabeth Doyle, to urge the sheriff’s office and its contractors to develop options for a “smaller, flexible jail facility based on implementation of criminal justice and racial justice reforms and a reduced long-term inmate population.” 

“What we hope that this resolution does is put in writing the current process that the sheriff is already engaged in, which is to pause the current planning, and request that the criminal and racial justice reforms that we’ve supported are considered in new planning,” Andrae said in an email. “The sheriff‘s office is already engaged in re-evaluating due to budget considerations, so we’re asking that through those new plans, that the new reforms are also considered.”

The resolution also calls on Dane County to review and implement recommendations to lower the jail population.  

Also Tuesday, Doyle's original resolution was postponed by the county’s Public Works & Transportation Committee. It would ultimately need Dane County Board approval. 

Supervisors Maureen McCarville, District 22 and Julie Schwellenbach, District 20, voted against the amended resolution. In addition to Andrae, Supervisors Carousel Bayrd, District 8; Alex Joers, District 9; and Teran Peterson, District 19, were in favor. Supervsor Dorothy Krause, District 27, was absent from the meeting.

The major project, which is now delayed several months due to financial concerns, would result in a new tower next to the Public Safety Building and the consolidation of the county’s three jail facilities downtown. Plans include closing part of the jail located on the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building and reducing the number of total beds from 1,013 to 922.

Chief Deputy Jeff Hook said the higher-than-anticipated costs are not unexpected. Now and over the next several months, designers are redoing plans to bring the cost estimates in line with the budgeted amount, including creating adaptable space that could be used for housing or programming. 

“Everything is on the table, and everything is being taken into consideration,” Hook said.  

However, Hook expressed concern about limiting bed capacity more than the original plans. 

County committees and the full board of supervisors will review construction contracts, likely next March or April. McCarville, who is the chair of the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee, unsuccessfully called to indefinitely postpone action on the resolution until those agreements are ready.   

McCarville stressed the urgency of shutting down the City-County Building jail, which was recommended by consultants to close with “due haste” in December 2016.

“It is a very inhumane place, and we have to replace it,” McCarville said. 

[Reaching out to dads in jail: Fathers and children do better when parental identity is supported

Triage, community justice centers 

Earlier in the meeting, the committee recommended a resolution encouraging the Criminal Justice Council to implement 15 recommendations across the areas of diversion, charging and sentencing, the jail and Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and transparency. 

Developing a triage and restoration center and a community justice center are included among the recommendations. These facilities would address mental health challenges within and outside of the criminal justice system. 

The resolution, sponsored by Dane County Board Chair Analiese Eicher and District 23 Supervisor Shelia Stubbs, calls for opening a triage and restoration center by 2023. The Dane County Board is expected to act on this resolution next month. 

Bayrd celebrated the commitment to these initiatives. 

“Of all the pieces of this proposal, it’s worth taking a moment to really celebrate this moment right now where everyone is acknowledging the urgency for this,” Bayrd said. “We have been working on this for a long time and have moved minimally.”  

Several speakers pointed out the disconnect in backing the jail project while also supporting ways to improve the criminal justice system and increase community behavioral health services. 

District 2 Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, who is not a member of the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee, said if supervisors are dedicated to criminal justice reform and non-law enforcement interventions, they will financially support those efforts and not an expensive jail project. 

“Let’s put our energy and more money there and let’s really call for a much smaller jail — a smaller jail that recognizes we’re committed to the systems change and we’re going to end our abhorrent racial disparities,” Wegleitner said.   

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