OPINION: We need a Plan B

Jail over-capacity. Delayed court cases. The county’s justice system is ‘at the point of crisis.’

Marathon County Courthouse

Marathon County Courthouse

Marathon County will start 2018 budget deliberations in earnest within two months. One item that needs to in the budgeting: funding an overall review of the county justice system. I call for this study based on these facts:

• Felonies filed at the Marathon County District Attorney’s Office have increased 55% over the last 10 years, from 913 in 2007 to 1,413 in 2016.

• The state’s Public Defender’s Office in Marathon County must “farm out” one-third of its indigent cases to state-certified private attorneys, but at a decades-old rate of $40 an hour. Lawyers who take these cases are guaranteed to lose money.

• It has become so difficult to find local attorneys to represent indigent defendants, Marathon County Circuit Court has had to contract with attorneys in Milwaukee, Eau Claire and Green Bay to take cases. There are times when Marathon County defendants must wait a month or more in jail before being assigned an attorney.

• A clogged, dysfunctional court system causes defendants to wait months, even years in the county jail for trials and sentencing. This week, the county has under lock and key 32 individuals who have been in jail for over one year. This is 8% of the total jail population. The current longest-serving Marathon County prisoner has been in jail for 1,224 days.

• A county jail is designed to hold prisoners for a maximum of one year.

• Marathon County Circuit Court presiding judge Jill Falstad says the county justice system is “at the point of crisis” and that, within the last few months, many cases have “bogged down.”

• Marathon County must transport over 100 jail overflow prisoners to four different county jails, including those in Lincoln, Langlade, Taylor and Chippewa Falls Counties. The cost of out-of-county jail beds is $970,000 a year.

• The Marathon County Jail has been full since 2005.

A justice system study needs to determine whether the county can emerge from its overwhelmed, troubled state of affairs and gain some needed efficiencies.

Different management strategies need to be evaluated. What if, for example, the county liberalized its program where circuit court judges may appoint attorneys to indigent defendants for $70 an hour? Would that, perhaps, incentivize more attorneys to take indigent criminal cases? And then, perhaps, reduce the jail population?

What about finding money for the cash-strapped District Attorney’s Office? If prosecutors had more help researching cases, could the county enjoy swifter justice and, in turn, see less pressure on the jail?

Consider the budget implications of a better functioning justice system. The 32 longest-serving inmates in the county jail have been there collectively for 16,762 jail bed days. If you were to reduce their jail longevity to the county average, around 180 days, you’d save nearly $550,000 or over $17,000 per prisoner. This calculation assumes a jail bed day costs the county $50.

Think, too, about the other benefits of a better functioning court system. Possibly, you wouldn’t have to transport prisoners all across central Wisconsin, making it easier for families to visit defendants. Quicker justice would mean victims would find resolution to their crimes faster. Witnesses in court cases would not have to wait years before testifying.

These are all good reasons why the county should invest in a justice system review, but there is an even more powerful one.

Marathon County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chad Billeb says he will request in next year’s budget an engineering study to determine if it’s feasible to add some more beds to the current county jail.

The request is reasonable. The jail is overstuffed with inmates. Billeb’s daily job is to make a dysfunctional justice system function. No one can blame him for exploring alternatives.

But this is why a study is imperative. If it makes sense to add a few more jail beds, an argument can be made to rebuild the county jail. A large-scale jail project, however, would demand either a massive tax increase or drastic cuts to popular county discretionary programs, namely parks and libraries. Both options would spark a political firestorm.

A justice system study is needed without delay. Somebody needs to give Chief Deputy Billeb a Plan B.

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