7 Investigates: Jail Overcrowding

Published: Jul. 3, 2017 at 10:51 PM CDT
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Marathon County Jail has been overcrowded for more than 20 years. Currently, it is about 70 percent over capacity and to compensate, has housed inmates in jails in other counties for years.

"They opened the expansion here in 2000 and at the time of opening that expansion, they were already over the number of beds that they had put on for the expansion," said Jail Administrator Sandra LaDu-Ives.

A maximum of 279 inmates can be housed at the jail. The state recommends, for safety and security purposes, it houses no more than 250. Currently, about 400 inmates are booked in.

"It's not uncommon for us to have between 100 and 120 people housed in other area facilities," LaDu-Ives told 7 Investigates.

Marathon County inmates can be found in Lincoln, Langlade, Shawano, Taylor, and even 86 miles away in Chippewa County to manage the numbers. While it costs about the same to house inmates in and out of county, about $50 a day, the county still has to pay for any medical or additional needs an inmate may have, and there are added transportation costs. This includes the salaries of two full-time deputies dedicated just to transport, not to mention gas and mileage costs on two squad cars. On top of that, LaDu-Ives added their inmate population is growing about four percent a year.

"The number of cases that are being filed by the district attorney, both misdemeanor and felony are at a level that is higher than ever.”

In 2006, there were more than 550 felony cases; ten years later, it has doubled. LaDu-Ives estimates 85 percent of crimes allegedly committed by inmates are drug related, specifically stemming from methamphetamine and heroin addictions.

"It may not be that they're charged with that,” she explained, “but maybe they did a burglary in order to pay for or a theft in order to pay for a drug habit that they're dealing with."

These more serious crimes take longer to process, which often means more days in jail. In other counties, LaDu-Ives said average stays are 12-21 days; in Marathon County, it is about 120. Coordinating the schedules of defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, transports, and potentially interpreters can prolong the court process. District Attorney Theresa Wetzstoen added there are shortages in public and private defenders, prosecutors, and judges to manage cases. According to workload analyses, nearly three judges are needed (2.9) along with three and a half (3.6) prosecutors. However, Wetzstoen pointed out the county board is funding 2.5 prosecutors, when prosecutors are supposed to be funded by the state, so to meet the prosecution workload of 14.6, about six prosecutors from the state are needed.

Ensuring inmates have representation, however, is the biggest challenge.

"We have seen people come back seven weeks in a row,” she exclaimed. “They're entitled to a preliminary hearing within 10 days. Seven weeks in a row and they don't have an attorney."

She explained the county has a special process like none other in the state just to review the status of inmate representation, so time and resources are not wasted. Public Defender’s Office Regional Attorney Manager Suzanne O’Neill said many cases, especially drug cases, involve more than one person.

"If there's an alleged drug bust and there are 15 people, we can represent one and then we'd have to find private bar attorneys for the other 14 that qualify."

At the state statute rate of $40 an hour, O’Neill said most private attorneys locally are not willing to take on public defender felony cases because the time commitment is not worth the pay, forcing her office to look to attorneys in the far east, west, and southern corners of the state. She added the counties north of Marathon County are facing the same challenges for their public defender-qualified cases.

"The further out we get, the less satisfied the defendants then tend to be for the representation because they're not going to have as much contact with the attorney,” she asserted.

LaDu-Ives said a significant drug case can last about two years before it is completed, even though generally, jails are meant to house someone no longer than a year. Because of the length of stay, the jail is providing more enrichment programming, including a GED, welding, and mindfulness programs.

"Our scope of control is not who's in the facility,” LaDu-Ives stated, “it's how the people in the facility are treated and managed."

Keeping in mind many inmates having drug addictions and mental health problems, LaDu-Ives said the jail is becoming more like a prison with its list of services offered. They employ a full-time social worker, psychiatrist, and mental health clinician and also offer counseling and life-skills classes so inmates have a chance at recovery after jail.

LaDu-Ives explained many inmates are stuck in a cycle of recidivism.

“I look and I think, you know, this person has a mental health issue and we’re treating it to the best of our abilities here in this facility, but the fact of the matter is, we’re not an inpatient treatment center for mental health or drugs or alcohol,” she stated. “So, we have a person that should have not ever come to jail, who had these mental health needs, but unfortunately, the mental health hospitals are full. You know, Mendota and Winnebago especially, there are waiting lists. And you have someone who’s found not competent to stand trial and they have nowhere else that’s safe for them to go and they’re not safe to be in the community, so they bring them to jail.”

It would take significant funding, but these criminal justice leaders believe in order to solve the overcrowding problem, there needs to more jail bed space, prosecutors, judges, a higher rate of pay for private attorneys taking public defender cases, and most importantly, more drug and mental health recovery resources in the community.

"They're all interconnected,” said Wetzstoen. “You can't just say, 'well here's our solution. This will solve the problem.' It won't."

Until something is done, she said the public is at risk.

"Everybody is connected in this community,” she urged. “You cannot just say this is not my problem because we are all affected."

These criminal justice leaders encourage community members to get involved and be informed by attending county board meetings. Those interested in helping to provide resources and support for those going through drug addiction and mental health recovery, see the

as part of the Drug Free Communities Program.