Opinion: Let’s think this through

Why build a $70 million new jail, when jail admissions have gone down in the past decade?


Chief Deputy Chad Billeb announced the Marathon County sheriff’s department would later this year request the county board fund an architectural study for a bigger jail in downtown Wausau or, perhaps, a new jail at a different location, possibly on county land at 72nd Avenue.

Billeb argued the current jail, built in 1988, is old, inadequate and overflowing with prisoners. Deputies must transport offenders to open jail beds in four other counties, Lincoln, Langlade, Taylor and Chippewa. The current jail design is “horrible” with hidden nook and crannies, and wastes staff time as they walk literally miles every day to patrol its linear layout.

The current jail is so inefficient and obsolete, claimed the chief deputy, a much bigger jail, if correctly designed, could be staffed with no increase in the number of corrections officers.

The sheriff’s department over the next few months needs to carefully consider why a new, bigger jail should be built, Billeb said, where, and how it would improve the overall justice system.

Yes, now is the time to be thoughtful.

Marathon County should have learned something from its jail expansion projects between 1988 and 2000. A key lesson is that you can’t build yourself out of a jail overcrowding problem.

County leaders need to understand why exactly the jail is full. And it’s not because of an increasing number of arrested offenders.

Jail admissions in Marathon County have gone down over the last decade, according to a National Institute of Corrections (NIC) report released in September 2017.

Back in 2007, the county jail saw 5,687 admissions. In 2016, there were 5,238. During that time, the jail’s average daily population spiked from 332 to 375, only because the average length of stay increased from 21 to 26 days.

The county needs to understand just why prisoners are spending extra time in jail. Is it because today’s offenders commit more serious crimes and must be held longer? Or perhaps, as the NIC report notes, a factor is the paucity of public defenders for the indigent, causing those defendants to wait longer in jail for court hearings.

It’s one thing to build a bigger jail because of an uptick in serious crime. It’s quite another to build a new jail because the state is too cheap to reimburse attorneys to represent poor defendants, causing court delays and jail congestion.

Decision-makers also must consider whether building a new, bigger jail is the correct response to the current “epidemic” of drug arrests. The NIC report notes that while the county jail is stuffed with drug users and sellers, the county has little capacity to treat addicts. A six-bed residential substance treatment program at North Central Health Care has a waiting list of 150 people. The health care agency’s 16 beds of its mental health hospital are in high demand.

Marathon County jails 276 per 100,000 people, significantly higher than the state average of 212, the NIC report states. Why is this? Because the county must jail drug users who otherwise can’t get treatment? Nobody supports building a $40–$70 million new jail because local addicts can’t obtain the treatment they need to get clean. It would make far more sense to spend some of that money on a bigger treatment center.

The county is in the midst of forming an opioid task force to learn how best to combat heroin and other narcotic use. The sheriff’s department would be wise to see what this panel says about drug treatment “best practices” before asking for a jail architectural study.

For years, county supervisors have silenced any mention of a new jail. They argued they’d have to dramatically slash other programs, including parks and libraries, to pay for added jailers under state levy limits. But now the sheriff’s department says it can operate a newly designed, bigger jail without increasing staff. That puts the proposal squarely on the table.

It is up to the sheriff’s department, justice officials, county supervisors and all the residents of Marathon County to painstakingly think through this difficult issue.

Peter Weinschenk is editor of the Record Review newspaper, serving Marathon, Athens, Edgar and Stratford, where this column also appears.

For more on the Marathon County Jail issue, see City Pages’ cover story on stands Feb. 22-March 1 edition.