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Grappling with space issues at Walworth County Jail

IS JAIL THE ONLY OPTION? Thanks to a jail study to evaluate the population and determine if other programs would be beneficial, the Walworth County Jail is looking for better ways to deal with its overcrowding issue instead of building a new $11 million jail. According to Milwaukee County Pretrial Coordinator Holly Szablewski, here are four local goals for pretrial, a program that involves evaluating inmates through rehab and other mental health programs in order to ultimately place them back in society: 1) Assure a defendant's appearance in court. 2) Minimize the potential for re-arrest while on release. 3) Maximize liberty 4) Minimize potential for the intimidation of the victim.
July 21, 2010 | 08:35 AM
Elkhorn — According to Walworth County Jail Administrator Michael Schmitz, overcrowding is a serious issue for the Walworth County Jail. If something isn't done soon, it could reach a boiling point.

Sometimes, the overcrowding reaches a point where 30 inmates must sleep on the floor in the jail's basketball court. While bringing in programs such as a drug court could improve the jail, Schmitz is hesitant to act without research because Commitment Accountability Treatment and Education currently only has three people in it. The issue of improving the jail's overcrowding problems currently is being reviewed by the Walworth County Executive Committee, but at a July 9 Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee meeting, options were discussed to simply upgrade the current facility by bringing in outside programs.

A main concern raised was the need to lock up some people.

"Why have people in jail who didn't pay a fine," Undersheriff Kurt Picknell asked after the meeting.

Jail Administrator Michael Schmitz said there already is a study under way to evaluate the jail population and determine what the best option is for the future.

"The option of a new jail still is under review," he said. "We must understand the population before we do anything. Right now, we are at 80 to 100 percent capacity. This is a long process, but we are trying to address the issue."

Schmitz said a new jail would cost around $9.5 million. County Administrator Dave Bretl said after the meeting that building should be the last alternative. "I'm happy with the direction this committee is going," he said. "We have $9.6 million in the capital plan for 2012, but do we need it for a new jail. We should find ways to reduce the need to build a jail. It's all about cost avoidance."

Bretl confirmed at the County Board meeting July 13 that a jail study is underway.

"We are currently in the midst of a jail study, and it's a pretty big project," he said. "It could cost up to $11 million for a new jail. We are looking to hold off on building, though."

Milwaukee County Pretrial Coordinator Holly Szablewski introduced some alternatives at the July 9 meeting, and she said she is willing to help get the ball rolling in Walworth County. "You need an analysis first and foremost of needs," she said. "Who could be in programs? What is the average length of stay? You can't house inmates unnecessarily. The study must be evidence-based. You must only use expensive jail beds for who really needs to be in jail."

Szablewski added that there's a risk analysis tool from Racine County that can be used without much cost. Also, student interns could compose the screening staff. Thanks to alternative programs in 2009, Milwaukee County saved 3,825 prison days, which correlated to $26 per day for the county. She said that the National Association of Counties recommends pretrial services at all county jails.

According to Schmitz, pretrial is risk management for released defendants. In 2009 in Milwaukee County, 65 percent of inmates were successfully released from programs.

Pretrial focuses on rehab and other mental health services to put people back in the community. The presumption is that everyone is eligible for release.

Starting as a pilot program in 2008, CATE ≠— which is 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 service and ignition interlocks.

David Thompson, deputy director of the Walworth County Health and Human Services Department, said there have been more than 50 graduates of the program. He said the program focuses on those who have been convicted of drunken driving up to three times. But due to lack of inmates in the program, Elkhorn resident Paula McGowen asked at the meeting if the committee is utilizing its time wisely. "The program only has a few people and costs $180 per week," she said. "We must move forward. Incarceration is not the way to go. I am an advocate for drug court and other mental health programs. I'm the mother of a recovered heroin addict. Thanks to drug court in several Illinois counties, my son was saved. We can save a lot of inmates. The savings of better programs instead of a new jail would be huge."

The next meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee is Sept. 17 at the Walworth County Jail.

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