Dane County needs a new jail. Everyone agrees that the old jail on the top floors of the City County Building is a mess, unsafe and inhumane. Everyone also agrees that the aged Huber Center on the fringes of the Alliant Energy Center parking lot has also long outlived its time.
But the Dane County Board just can’t seem to take action to solve the problem. A few years ago former Sheriff Dave Mahoney advocated for a plan that made a lot of sense. He would have shut down both the CCB jail and the Huber Center and added stories to the relatively new jail in the Public Safety Building downtown. But engineering studies revealed that that wasn’t possible, so his plan B was to build a new jail tower next door. In any event, Mahoney’s responsible plan which was supported by District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, would have reduced the overall jail capacity by just under 10% while providing new space for inmate services and visits from family and eliminating solitary confinement.
But the hard-left, led by the most irresponsible and counter-productive nonprofit in the city, Freedom, Inc., fought his proposal, at one point even shutting down a Board meeting with shouts, obscenities and generally obnoxious behavior. The Board approved the plan anyway. Good for them.
But then costs started to skyrocket and budget amendments were needed to keep the project on track. The Board balked at spending more money. Then COVID hit and the jail population plummeted, leading to more questions about just how big the jail needed to be. Jail advocates said that the dip was temporary and they pointed out that for the last decade Dane County has been the fastest growing county in the state, with a population up 15%.
To trim costs the original 921 bed plan was taken down to 825. But cost projections continued to rise and the Board continued to be unable to summon the necessary votes to spend more money. Recently, the Board’s Black Caucus came up with a plan to cut yet another 100 beds, but now even that plan has apparently been nixed by two committees.
Here’s a summary of the pitiful saga:
|Black Caucus Plan||725||-28%|
|Dane County Ten Year Growth Rate||+15%|
It seems to me that most sensible people would look at those numbers and conclude that even the original plan’s 921 beds might not be enough. But to the hard-left no jail can be small enough. Their working theory is that it’s all about racism and so, if you squeeze the jail, it will force reforms in the criminal justice system that will magically slash the need for jail beds overnight.
That’s just ridiculous. Both Ozanne and new Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett are Black and they would beg to disagree with the hard-left. There are bad, violent people in this world and they need to be separated from society for our protection, at least for a time. Now to be sure, that separation should be in a place that is humane and safe and in a facility set up to provide them with the services they need to address underlying mental health or addiction issues or to provide other services that would reduce their chances of committing another crime. And, of course, we need to keep in mind that many jail inmates are only accused of crimes, and they’re awaiting trial or a settlement in their cases. They aren’t there as a punishment.
Ironically, the hard-left’s insistence on an ever-smaller facility is keeping the inhumane CCB lockup around longer and denying inmates (and they are “inmates”, not “incarcerated people”) the facilities that would make their time in jail more productive.
My own view is that we should spend the money we need to spend to do this right because that facility is going to be there for decades. The original plan makes sense to me, even at the much higher cost. It would provide much better facilities while reducing beds enough in a fast growing county to put pressure on the system so that only those who really need to be incarcerated are put in jail. But no reduction will ever be enough for the hard-left. Trying to satisfy them is a fool’s errand.
And since the County Board can’t seem to make a decision, I think Dane County Executive Joe Parisi had the right idea: put it to voters in a referendum this fall or next spring. If the people’s representatives can’t make a decision, then let the people themselves decide the question.
What’s clear is that we cannot go on like this.