The jail problem

Nobody wants to pay $50 million (give or take) for a new facility in Marathon County. But the arguments for it are building


On Dec. 5, John drove the wrong way after pulling out of the Wausau Center Mall ramp, turning westbound on Forest Street. A police vehicle traveling in the correct direction of the one-way street had to brake to avoid hitting him.

The officer turned on his lights to stop the man, but instead John accelerated his SUV and drove away, soon getting stuck on a gravel berm in a parking lot. John stepped out of the SUV with his sunglasses on, looked at the officer for a moment, then ran in the opposite direction. Other officers tracked him down and took him into custody.

It wasn’t John’s best decision making, and few would question his arrest and incarceration. What happened next illustrates the very thing a recent study on the Marathon County Jail was commissioned to investigate: why the jail is so full. The court record of John’s case is telling.

• Charges were filed Dec. 6 for resisting, obstructing and eluding an officer. A $1,000 cash bond was high enough to keep John in jail because he couldn’t pay.

• John appeared in court on Dec. 8, with no attorney to represent him. The case was delayed so that John could find a public defender.

• He appeared on Dec. 15 without an attorney, and again, on Dec. 22.

• Finally a judge ordered a request that John be given an attorney, and a preliminary hearing was set for Jan. 3.

• On Jan. 16 an attorney made an argument on John’s bond, which the judge reduced to $250 with a $2,500 signature bond (a promise of forfeiture; cash bonds are money you plunk down before you can physically leave the jail.)

• On Jan. 25, John signed the signature bond and was released.

John sat in jail for 51 days basically because he couldn’t afford an attorney to help in the simple matter of bond. Had an attorney been present for the initial appearance, John probably would have been released from jail within days—not after 51 days.

It’s a scenario Marathon County leaders say has become all too common. This is a matter of taxpayer dollars. At the $50 per day jail administrators cite for the cost of locking someone up, John’s incarceration cost an additional $2,500 that could have been avoided.

Avoidable jail stays is a big problem, according to a report on the Marathon County Jail by the National Institute of Corrections. Average daily jail populations are increasing and the jail is overcrowded, something county leaders have been talking about for years in a drive to build a new jail facility.

But the study points to another stat that’s interesting. Actual jail admissions are down. What’s up is the length of jail stays. Also noteworthy in the study: the vast majority of inmates in the jail are non-violent offenders.

The study inspired county leaders to scrap plans to build a jail addition and take a longer view of the problem. But in the end, that still probably means a whole lot of justifications for building a new jail that will cost tens of millions of dollars.

Fewer jail admissions, actually


District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon with a newspaper from 1991 talking about the jail being over capacity.

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon grew up in the area, and still has a copy of the Record Review newspaper from the 1990s that features a poignant and ironic front page. The top of the front page features a large photo of Wetzsteon as the Queen of Marathon Fun Days; below is a story about the Marathon County Jail being at overcapacity three years after it was built.

The jail problem has only gotten worse. In 2016, the facility hit an all-time high at 400 inmates—this, at a jail with the functional capacity of 223 and its rated max at 297.

Since then, that has meant sending inmates to other counties, and those counties are father and farther away each year. Currently inmates are interned at Taylor, Lincoln and Langlade county facilities; at its peak, inmates were also kept in Chippewa County.

Marathon County Sheriff’s Office leaders suspected they needed to act quickly. The plan: Build a jail addition on the site of the Juvenile Corrections facility, and put in a $175,000 request for architectural designs of such a facility.

Jail Administrator Sandra LaDu wanted to know more about the problem. She knew from attending National Institute of Corrections conferences that the NIC would perform a study on the jail facilities, at no cost. There’s a saying among county leaders that most studies cost about $50,000; so to get a study of the problem for no cost saved the county about that much.

It also saved them a decision. What the study revealed caused leaders to change course. Chief Deputy Sheriff Chad Billeb this month asked the county’s Capital Improvements Committee to withdraw his request for architectural plans at the juvenile facility. County leaders instead will ask for that same amount out of next year’s budget to look at a big picture view of the county’s corrections approach.

What findings stunned county leaders enough to step back on their jail plans? The reasons for overcrowding are complex, and have little to do with more inmates being incarcerated.

The number of new admissions to the jail have actually decreased: from 5,687 in 2007 to 5,238 in 2016. New admissions hit a low in 2014, according to NIC’s report, at 4,733.

Yet the average jail stay in that time frame increased from 21.3 days to 26.1. Given the figure county leaders cite of jail bed days costing roughly $50 per day, each prisoner costs taxpayers $250 more than it did in 2007.

“As can be seen, the growth in average daily population is not being driven by admissions but by the increased number of days inmates spend in jail,” the report’s authors say. (Inmates are charged for some of that cost after sentencing, but not for time prior to sentencing. Court delays mean more time spent in jail without paying.)

What is causing those delays? Lack of defense attorneys is one reason, the report says. The public defender’s office is woefully understaffed, and private defense attorneys rarely take these cases. According to a 2013 study from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Wisconsin’s rate of $40 per hour is the lowest in the country, and hasn’t changed since that report came out, defense attorneys tell City Pages. The federal rate for attorneys in federal cases is $125 per hour, and the average rate of all states is $65 per hour.

That $40 per hour might sound like a lot to someone thinking about wages. But being an attorney is like running a small business, with offices and administrative expenses. According to attorney Dick Lawson, the public defender rate 20 years ago would have netted about $6,000 per year after expenses. Today a person working public defender cases full-time would operate at a net loss. The pay rate would have to be closer to $70 to run an office, Lawson says.

“I take [a public defender case] now and then to help out,” Lawson says. He recalls one case in which a person he represented had previously been represented by someone in Milwaukee. That attorney took the case because no one local could be found, but didn’t have much time to see the client, who “sat for more than 30 days [in jail] without hearing from a lawyer,” Lawson says.

Defense attorney Jim Kurszewski doesn’t take public defender cases any more. He says the public defenders office used to rely more on private attorneys, but with a rate that hasn’t changed in years, finding attorneys to take those cases is becoming more difficult.

Private attorneys willing to help are important, both for overflow cases and cases in which there are conflicts of interest, says Suzanne O’Neill, regional attorney manager for the local Public Defenders office (which covers 13 counties in Wisconsin). Public defenders in the Wausau office have been maxed out for several years, she says.

The lack of representation means avoidable jail stays, such as John’s, are becoming more common, Billeb says.

This obvious problem even has spurred Marathon County to add a step in the court process, Wetzsteon says. The circuit courts added a review after the initial hearing to check whether a defendant has been appointed an attorney or not. This avoids scheduling a court appearance—which can involve multiple legal and law enforcement staff— that’s basically a moot point. County leaders say defendants have come back nearly a dozen times before finally finding an attorney.

All this is not news to the Evidence-based Decision Making Team, which is studying the entire jail problem and looking to make improvements.

“There needs to be a review of what we’re doing now, and how we’re doing it,” Billeb says. “So what we’re doing with our evidence-based decision making team is to see if there is still an opportunity to control this population.”

And more data is needed, Billeb says. For example, Billeb on a recent Wednesday pulled up that day’s jail population in 2017. The total population was 421. The population that date in 2018 was 370. “With numbers bouncing all over the place, I have a hard time figuring out why,” Billeb says.

Some programs already are helping. One thing to come out of the Evidenced-based Decision Making Team, Wetzsteon says, is a diversion program started in September for those charged with Operating After Revocation, one of the most common charges in the county. The diversion program keeps these cases from ever coming to a prosecutor’s desk. Instead of going through the entire court process, a case manager looks at how a person can regain a license so they don’t keep coming back to jail. Attic Correctional Services now is handling 600 total diversion cases that might otherwise have clogged up courtrooms. That jumped from 444 cases in 2015.

And the drug court kicked off in January, and already has three enrollments, says Marathon County Justice System Coordinator Laura Yarie, and the program can handle 25. Similar to the county’s special OWI court, the drug court will reduce the jail population with more personalized intervention.

What happens now, Yarie says, is that someone arrested for drugs and released on bond is still addicted and commits more crimes. The first woman in the program had sat in jail for a year because she kept getting into trouble related to her addiction. The woman even told Yarie about seeing many of the same people returning to jail multiple times throughout the year she herself was incarcerated. Defendants entering drug court work with a case manager and a drug treatment program to reduce the likelihood they’d commit more crimes in the meantime.

And law enforcement’s new approach to mental health is to get people help rather than throwing them behind bars. The Sheriff’s Office, Wausau Police and North Central Health Care joined forces to start the Crisis Assessment Response Team this year to better handle mental health situations.

For some of those longer stays, judges now have a hotsheet listing inmates who have been locked up for more than six months. That clues judges in of cases that need to be sped up.

And all this is working. Involuntary detentions dropped from 575 in 2016 to 403 in 2017, data from the Sheriff’s office shows. And that’s before the mental health crisis team even started. Billeb says that also is due to better collaboration between law enforcement, North Central Health Care, county attorneys and the mental health programs in the school.

To build or not. And space design makes a big difference


The Marathon County Jail is full of long, narrow hallways such as this one, that make the jail a maze for staff and makes it impossible for corrections officers to supervise inmates unless they’re right in front of the jail cell. Modern jails offer structures that allow fewer staff to monitor prisoners from a central location.

No matter what, there’s a broad consensus among staff and outside experts that the county needs to build a new jail soon—though the decision ultimately comes down to the elected 38 members of the county board. Even if the jail population is reduced by efficiency measures and mental health and other diversions, crimes being committed are on more serious than previously suspected. And many revolve around drugs.

Bookings for charges related to methamphetamines, for example, totaled 32 between January and June of 2014. By that same time period in 2016, that number jumped to 167. Heroin charges also jumped in that same timeframe, from 16 to 42.

And while the county has made the opioid epidemic and reducing drug usage a top priority, there’s not a quick solution.

Considering the Marathon County Jail was considered overcrowded in 1991, it’s unlikely the jail will ever be under capacity. For one, the county’s total population was 115,750 back then, and around 136,000 now.

And one critical argument is that the current jail simply is not a well-designed space, and therefore unable to handle programs that could address things like job training, mentoring, and other anti-recidivism measures. The NIC study cites this lack of meeting space as a main flaw.

Furthermore, modern jails are designed to allow the supervision of more inmates with fewer personnel. The operating cost of a new, larger jail always has been part of the equation. But a better design could result in fewer staff per inmate. Right now, that inmate-to-staff number is about 25:1. That could be reduced to 100:1, which might make a new jail more palatable to county leaders.

Outdated design is not a unique problem to Marathon County. Portage County for years has dealt with overcrowding and a jail design that’s even worse than Marathon County’s. County leaders there have long said the jail was obsolete the day it was built. The sally port where inmates are brought into jail, for example, hardly leaves any room to get an inmate out of a patrol vehicle. And it requires inmates to be brought across the street to court. Portage County also sends inmates to other counties.

Of all jails in the region, Marathon County’s is the least efficient and is a challenge for attorneys to meet with clients, says O’Neill of the regional Public Defender’s Office. “It’s a painful to get in and out of that jail,” O’Neill says. “It’s not the fault of the individuals, it’s just the way that jail is set up.”

With the NIC study in hand, the next step is to bring in experts to recommend the best next steps with an evidence-based approach.

But there are some factors the county can’t fix. Public defender rates are set by the state, and the availability of those attorneys—which greatly impacts daily jail population—will depend on lawmakers raising those rates.

“I don’t see that changing,” Lawson says. “The legislature doesn’t give a shit about indigent defendants getting quality defense.”