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Will alternatives lessen jail population?

Overcrowding could lead to need for expansion

May 26, 2010 | 09:10 AM
Elkhorn — Local Resident Paula McGowen appeared in front of Walworth County court and law officials last week with one main question.

"Since this (Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee) has been started, what has been accomplished?" The question was asked at Friday's committee meeting. Walworth County Sheriff David Graves, District Attorney Phillip Koss, Jail Administrator Michael Schmitz among several others at the meeting were willing to provide answers to that question.

To avoid a multimillion-dollar expansion to an already overcrowding jail, Walworth County officials have been looking into other programs and rehabilitation efforts. The jail typically operates at 80 percent capacity but can sometimes overcrowd to the point where about 30 inmates must sleep on the floor in a jail basketball court.

Koss calls the CATE project one of the biggest steps taken so far to provide alternatives to incarceration.

Starting as a pilot program in 2008, the program meant for repeat drunken driving offenders requires therapy and a GPS tracking device which shows the offender's location and the amount of alcohol in their perspiration. If alcohol is detected, they are sent back to jail. However, those who complete the program receive sentence reductions. Other conditions are added as well including community serve and ignition interlocks.

David Thompson, deputy director of the Walworth County Health and Human Services Department, said there have been in excess of 50 graduates of the program.

He said the program focuses on those who have been convicted of drunken driving up to three times.

Although a final decision has not been made, Thompson said the program may extend participation to fourth-time offenders and they are attempting to make it more "attractive" to individuals who are eligible.

However, there is a slight problem with funding.

"CATE receives no county funding so the participants have to pay their own way," Thompson said. "Although I can't give exact numbers, it's approximately $731 a month for treatment, monitoring and surveillance and other fees. There are many people eligible who may not be able to afford being in the program."

He said many of those who go through the program have family members that help them pay for it.

The committee plans to present data on the CATE program to the Walworth County Board to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program and how it may be expanded to individuals who cannot currently afford it.

The county also has turned to electronic monitoring and providing education for inmates to earn their GED.

The officials agreed that achieving that academic standard helps keep inmates from returning to jail if released.

Jail Administrator Michael Schmitz said a large majority of those jailed in Walworth County have short-term sentences.

Thompson said the county continues to look into day reporting, which would allow certain offenders to sleep at home but report to jail daily in order to ensure they are meeting conditions of bonds and sentences.

As of now, he said it will most likely serve adults in pretrial stages.

Schmitz said jail and court officials have met with B.I. Behavior, Inc. to discuss how a day reporting system would be set up, how to coordinate a treatment program with it and where would those services could be housed.

"We will be deciding what we need to be looking at and if we may consider a day reporting center in reference to juveniles and truancy issues," he said. "We're not sure we can get this done for the 2011 budget, but we could plan for the 2012 budget."

McGowen asked the committee if a drug and alcohol court would ever be considered.

"I certainly don't oppose it," Koss said in response. "In the past, judges have always been interested in the idea but, I guess it fell on deaf ears so to speak."

Newly elected Branch Four Circuit Court Judge David Reddy attended the meeting as a member of the public. McGowen praised him for openly supporting drug and alcohol courts in his campaign.

Thompson said the idea has long been discussed but there have been issues preventing it from coming to fruition.

"In a drug-court model, every individual has to come before the court weekly and sometimes more, so it takes significant judicial time," he said. "The capacity of our court system now wouldn't lend itself to that model. We'd recommend an entire, addition judicial branch — at least one. So, there are concerns on the ability and cost to expand in order to provide that court system and meet the current needs as well."

The committee plans to have a final resolution this fall on whether the county should construct an addition to the jail or construct new programs and services as alternatives to incarceration.

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