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Supervisors seek 'vision' for managing jail population

December 22, 2010 | 08:28 AM
Elkhorn — The Walworth County Board and the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee have wrestled with the problem of reducing the county's jail population for almost exactly a year.

Now, it's time for some vision.

On Monday, the County Board's Executive Committee voted to send a synopsis of its findings to the coordinating committee and request a report on where it and the executive committee are in agreement and where they might differ.

County Administrator David Bretl said that basically, the supervisors will be asking the coordinating committee, "what do you want?"

The goal is for the two committees to develop a common vision on how to proceed to change the county's policies on who to incarcerate and when.

The coordinating committee is comprised of District Attorney Phil Koss, County Judge David Reddy, members of the public defenders office, the county Health and Human Services Department and others who deal with the county's jail population.

After a year of studying the problem, the two county committees have heard that more than 70 percent of the jail population stays for four days or less. Most are on pre-trial hold, meaning they haven't been sentenced, they just can't meet bond.

And many of those who are sentenced would do better in programs that divert people from the jail to treatment or counseling programs designed to reduce jail recividism.

Supervisor Dan Kilkenny, a member of the Executive Committee, reminded supervisors of a comment made by a public defender, that "we should be locking up those we fear, and not those we're just mad at."

Among the diversion programs being considered are one to treat repeat drunken drivers and another to treat those with drug and alcohol dependencies.

The key is properly screening those entering the county's criminal justice system, called risk assessment, to determine who can benefit from the diversion programs and who has to be held behind bars.

"When you say public safety, you're talking about risk assessment," County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell said.

The county may have to add to its probation and parole staff and add a program coordinator.

It may also have to hire a professional service to do the evaluations of those who face either incarceration or release under county diversion programs, said Supervisor David Weber, who chairs the executive committee.

Still, that may well be considerably less than $11 million for a new jail, plus another $1 million a year for staffing, he said.

The Executive Committee's synopsis will be officially sent to the coordinating committee next month.

Because of the meeting schedules, the Coordinating Committee will officially receive the synopsis at its February meeting, Bretl said.

The reply to the executive committee could come by March.

Interest in diversion programs to keep people out of the jail started when it became apparent that the jail section at the Walworth County Correctional Center, opened in 1996, was beginning to reach capacity. The correctional center also has a Huber dorm.

The Executive Committee also accepted a report, date November 2010, from the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that does jail use studies around the country.

Using a U.S. Justice Department grant, the institute did a study of the Walworth County jail and found that most in the jail were either unsentenced (they couldn't meet bond,) or on a probation hold.

The institute's report lists three recommendations.

n The committees involved in studying the jail population should draft a "vision statement" that sets forth the ideal use of the jail.

n The county should enhance its ability to collect and report data on the jail population on a regular basis.

n The county should create a number of options that are "the most appropriate, least restrictive and most cost-efficient."

The report continues: "Those who need to be placed in jail, which is an expensive resource, should be accurately identified and assigned a jail bed. But those who could be dealt with using a less restrictive and less expensive intervention should be placed accordingly."

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