Build a JAIL or build PROGRAMS?


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Law enforcement officers perform a role playing exercise with Katie Vanderheiden, an Appleton officer who helps train other departments in crisis intervention. She’s playing the role of someone having a mental health crisis and officers are learning how de-escalate, and help people through, such moments.

Two young police officers walk into an office of a large employer. A woman sits at her desk, head in her hands, shaking. Her supervisor met with the officers and relayed the scenario: The employee isn’t working; she’s just sitting at her desk, shaking her head, running her fingers through her hair.

When she sees the two Spencer Police Department officers, the woman is stricken with fear. “I haven’t done anything wrong!” she shouts. They try to reassure her. She hasn’t done anything wrong. They just want to talk. They ask if they can sit down. She’s fidgeting, there’s a sharp pair of scissors on her desk.

At about the moment she’s starting to calm, her boss enters the room, yelling about a late report. He grabs the document from her desk, despite her pleas for more time. “Wait!” she yells as he storms out of her office. But he doesn’t.

The officers start asking about what’s been going on in her life: how she’s feeling, whether she takes medication. In a shaky voice, the woman admits that she’s on meds, but hasn’t taken them in some time because she doesn’t like the side effects.

“End scene!” The boss shouts, and everyone relaxes from the tense situation.

The officers were real, but the rest was a training exercise at Northcentral Technical College. The troubled employee was portrayed by Katie Vanderheiden, a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training officer in the Appleton Police Department. The boss was John Wallschlaeger, one of the Fox Valley’s first CIT officers.

The two Spencer officers were among the first 30 of Marathon County law enforcement to undergo crisis intervention training, which includes classroom sessions and scenario drills. Having a mental health issue isn’t a crime, of course. But some people with mental illnesses are more likely to commit them, or a disturbance can escalate into a jail-able offense. The hope is that by getting someone the help they need early on, the county can prevent those crimes and take fewer people to jail.

Reducing the inmate population is crucial. This fall, there’s an average of more than 400 inmates each day at the Marathon County jail. Because the jail has 279 beds, nearly 25% those inmates are housed at other county jails, costing Marathon County taxpayers more than $1 million this year. The some inmates who qualify are on electronic monitors.

The Marathon County District Attorney’s office has seen a surge too, with prosecution on track to break records in the coming year. What’s driving the spike? Crimes connected to drug use (heroin and methamphetamine, namely) and issues with mental health are largely to blame, say prosecutors and police.

So far this year, the DA’s office charged out 674 drug possession cases, including those for cocaine, marijuana, meth, heroin and illegally obtained prescription medication. They also charged out 196 drug sale cases. As of Nov. 18, that totals 870 cases, already 13% more than the 767 drug-related cases in 2015. The surge is, at least in part, why the office is asking for a digital specialist to free up prosecutors’ time.

Cases related directly to mental health are more difficult to pin down with hard numbers—they’re not specifically tracked, though law enforcement and jail officials see it contributing to the burgeoning inmate population. But interestingly, North Central Health Care’s inpatient unit has seen a similar spike in 2016. The 16-bed facility, which can house as many as 20 patients, held an average of 18 people around the August-October time period. That’s far more than typical, says NCHC’s interim CEO Michael Loy. And similar to the jail’s population issue, NCHC this year also has had to ship more patients than usual to other mental health facilities, because it simply is running out of space.

When county leaders in 2007 considered building a new jail, construction costs were pegged at around $40 million, with annual operating expenses costing $2 million more per year. Nearly 10 years later, the price tag for a new facility would be even higher, calculating building cost inflation of 6-8% per year. In comparison, neighboring Portage County’s proposed new jail facility would cost more than $70 million, if county leaders there approve the plan.

Building a new jail in Marathon County wasn’t well received when it was brought up in 2007. Portage County referendums on building a new jail have been shot down three times, including the latest proposal, on Nov. 8. Leaders there could still approve the plan, since the referendums were all nonbinding.

Given such a large price tag, instead of rebuilding, Marathon County leaders want to expand existing intervention programs and institute more alternative sentencing options. The question is, will those measures be enough? With budgets tightening, it’s hard to imagine a new jail being an option.

“We have to be honest with ourselves: When the county is struggling with how to pave its roads, how do we find $40 million to build a new jail?” says Marathon County Chief Deputy Chad Billeb. “I think that’s what we have to come back to.”

Programming seemed to help reduce jail populations in Outagamie County, an early proponent in the state for crisis intervention training. But it took time and a number of efforts, not one magic bullet, before its jail population dropped. Marathon County leaders hope that happens here.

Similar problems

This fall, Marathon County Jail Administrator Sandra La Du-Ives put things in perspective for the county’s public safety committee: The jail’s population spiked at 412—a record and far more than the typical 350 inmate total. On one day in September, 122 inmates were housed in other county jails, with Marathon County taxpayers footing the bill. That arrangement has worked for many years. But those jails in Lincoln, Taylor and Waupaca counties also are filling up. That is forcing Marathon County to consider jail space in counties as far away as Chippewa.

Housing the county’s inmates at other facilities is expected to cost more than $1 million this year, a higher cost than the county has ever seen and far more than the $850,000 budgeted. And that doesn’t even include transportation costs, deputy driving time, fuel and court system delays when inmates are driven back and forth for court appearances.

Here’s a snapshot of the Marathon County Jail population on Oct. 20:

•   Inmate total population: 407

•   Physically housed in the jail: 263

•   On home monitor:  23

•   Held in other jails: 5 in Langlade County, 77 in Lincoln County, 5 in Shawano, 31 in Taylor County

•   Average jail stay:  118.49 days

Portage County struggles with its own overcrowding problem. It’s on track to spend $512,000 on housing inmates outside of its 79-bed facility, also not including all the costs that go along with that.

Could there be benefits to a new jail? Definitely, says La Du-Ives, such as more programming space. Right now the three program rooms are booked solid with educational, spiritual and other services for inmates. A new facility would allow the county to house extra prisoners, and bring in revenue for holding out-of-county inmates. The facility could be designed to accommodate new strategies and classifications in housing prisoners.

Increasing programs

The first round of crisis intervention training is only the start. Billeb says the county also is working to create a mental health law enforcement unit led by a county and Wausau city officer. Those two officers’ sole purpose would be to help people with mental health issues, getting them the services they need and following up with them periodically. That unit, if formed, would be the only one like it in the state that covers an entire county, says John Wallschlaeger, who brought crisis intervention training to the Appleton Police Department and has since founded Gold Stripe Consulting to do the same in other police forces.

When asked how it all works, Wallschlaeger recounts a man with whom he spent 1½ years as a CIT officer. This person was former Chicago-based HMO manager and nearly homeless when he had a physical altercation with police. That incident escalated into an arrest, but later Wallschlaeger was able to help stabilize him, eventually find him employment, and get his court cases settled. It’s one of many examples he can point to where CIT techniques helped keep someone out of jail.

Officers in Marathon County who talk about CIT training have positive things to say about it. A Wausau officer told Billeb he’d already used the training on a call a few days later. “This stuff works,” he told the chief deputy.

Outagamie County’s Jail Administrator David Kiesner lauded the program’s effectiveness, but said it curtails total inmate population only when paired with other services.

The Outagamie County Jail’s total population in 2000 averaged 344 inmates per day. That number rose as high as 452 in 2006. Appleton, which houses its prisoners at the Outagamie County Jail, started training its officers in crisis intervention in 2008-2009. Initially, the jail population remained largely the same.

The numbers started to drop around the same time Outagamie County started other programs to pair with crisis intervention. Those included  specialty courts for people with mental health, drug and alcohol issues, and for veterans, all initiated around 2011. The jail went from offering zero mental health services in 2004 to 60 hours of mental health treatment with a social worker.

In 2012, the average Outagamie County jail population dropped to 442, then to 427 in 2013. The jail averaged 407 inmates per day in 2014 and 414 last year—an 8% drop in a 10-year span.

Marathon County’s programs are in the beginning stages. North Central Health Care’s Lakeside Recovery program, a 6-bed, 21-day addiction treatment facility, launched last August. So far 143 drug and alcohol addicts have graduated from the program, says director Daniel Shine. The program’s six beds are in high demand, with a 137-person waiting list.

As of September of this year, the county’s OWI court has graduated 40 people, says Marathon County Justice System Coordinator Laura Yarie. One more is expected to graduate by the end of the year. Formed in 2011, the program provides an alternative court in which offenders who have committed their fifth or sixth operating while intoxicated offense are closely monitored while undergoing treatment.

The county has wanted to expand its specialty courts, for example adding a court dedicated to drug addicts. A drug court can succeed, though, only with a treatment facility nearby. NCHC’s drug treatment program just started in August 2015, and its six beds aren’t nearly enough to make a drug court workable, Yarie says.

Other efforts that would complement the county’s goal of reducing the jail population include the community-wide Crisis Process Improvement Team, created in early 2016. It’s a group of leaders from the Wausau and D.C. Everest school districts, Peaceful Solutions counseling, Bridge Community Clinic, NCHC, Aspirus, Marathon County Sheriff’s Office and Marathon County Social Services. They’ve been meeting to streamline the processes through which they all handle people in crisis, and improve communication between different aspects of mental health.


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Drug interdictions are one way to fight the drug epidemic, but law enforcement officials know local government can’t arrest its way out of the meth and heroin problem.

A summit on drug abuse, organized by Jeff Campo, brought county and city leaders together with addiction experts to get a better handle on the drug problem. Campo lost his daughter Gabrielle to a heroin overdose last year. He envisions programs where inmates can work in gardens or other community projects. Helping a troubled person accomplish something, to feel good about the work they do, can do wonders, he says. He saw it happen several years ago when he led the rebuilding of the Rothschild Pavilion, and he’d like to help institute similar programs going forward.

“Change is hard, it’s really hard, especially with something as complicated as this,” Campo says. “I used to think that if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. But you can’t think that way anymore. We need to try to help people. Locking them up is not the answer.”

Our neighbors to the west

Minnesota’s approach to criminal justice might be the best example at the state level of how programming works to reduce incarceration.

In Wisconsin, 371 out of every 100,000 adults is incarcerated, slightly below the national average, according to U.S. Dept. of Justice statistics. Minnesota incarcerates only 194 out of 100,000 adults, the fourth lowest incarceration rate in the nation.

Other numbers help demonstrate how Minnesota differs from Wisconsin. In Minnesota, 2,330 out of 100,000 adults are on probation, far exceeding the national average of 1,463. In Wisconsin, only 1,043 of 100,000 adults are on probation.

Minnesota was early to embrace some alternative sentencing practices, according to a state report, Corrections Retrospective, 1959-1999. In 1986 Minnesota started a “sentencing to service” program, which put locally sentenced, non-dangerous offenders to work in community improvement projects. In 1990 the state established the Intensive Supervision program, which put select high-risk offenders under strict control and surveillance in the community. In 1992, Minnesota established the Challenge in Incarceration program, a bootcamp-style prison with a highly structured environment for nonviolent drug and property offenders. It also was the first state in the U.S. to establish a restorative justice office with a full time staff, and the first to adopt sentencing guidelines that many states now have.

Minnesota doesn’t have less crime, it just deals with offenders differently. Minnesota crime rate is 2,527 offenders per 100,000, compared to Wisconsin’s 2,378.

Building isn’t the answer

Building a new Marathon County Jail in the near future isn’t likely, says County Administrator Brad Karger. With budgets strained in every department, the prospect of building a new jail for $40+ million plus $2 million more annually to operate, isn’t likely.

“We’re throwing all our eggs in the basket of programming,” Karger said.

But at some point, building a new jail might be the only option.

There was no magic bullet in Outagamie County that stopped the rise of inmate populations; it took a multi-faceted change to bring those numbers down. Marathon County is hoping it can do the same.