Dane County tries to buy itself a six-figure helping of Mahoney baloney

The former sheriff is an atrocious pick to lead the county’s new Department of Justice Reform.
A photo image of former Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney photoshopped into a hot dog costume.

The former sheriff is an atrocious pick to lead the county’s new Department of Justice Reform.

Dane County’s punishment system continues to claim it’s doing just great at reforming itself. The evidence in front of our faces shows little progress. 

On June 9, County Executive Joe Parisi announced that he had chosen former Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who retired a few years ago claiming he had a better job opportunity, to act as the temporary director of the county’s Department of Justice Reform. The newly-formed county office will supposedly “focus on reducing racial disparities and disproportionate incarcerations.”

This announcement was followed by local media coverage that just parroted the county’s press release or reprinted whatever Mahoney said about himself without asking deeper questions. There was also a fawning, credulous editorial in The Cap Times that gives Mahoney more than the benefit of the doubt. It asks nothing of him whatsoever, as if we can just slot him in and have him keep on doin’ what he supposedly does so well.

But Mahoney failed to create real change in his 14 years heading up the main pipeline into punishment that the county has control over: the Dane County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO). The main guy who upheld the status quo at that office for 14 years is not a convincing choice to reform it. Mahoney was the president of the National Sheriff’s Association, not some reforming outsider. His and Dane County’s weak claims of reform have had little material impact on our racist carceral system and the county’s dangerous addiction to punishment instead of care. 

Shot down

Mahoney doesn’t officially get the job until the Dane County Board of Supervisors approves his appointment. To start that process, the county’s Public Protection and Judiciary (PP&J) committee took up the appointment during a meeting on June 22. Fortunately, Supervisors on the committee brought more probing questions than our local media did in the run-up. District 14 Supervisor Anthony Gray asked Mahoney: “How do you square what you’re telling us is a record of success with the fact that Dane County has the worst disparities in the nation, and those disparities have increased, not decreased, over the last decade?”

Mahoney replied: “Well, if we talk about the jail, Supervisor… it is disproportionate. If you rank Dave Mahoney in his performance, Dave Mahoney doesn’t control who comes in on the front end, and who leaves at the back end…” 

After this bizarre phrasing, he named all the entities involved in the fate of people accused of committing crimes, from the District Attorney to the courts. He claimed each one is part of the solution; but then immediately admitted they are all part of the problem, as well. He ended his reply to Gray by claiming to agree “a hundred and twenty percent” that we “need to do something different.” Perhaps in that moment he realized that he was making a comment on his own appointment.

At a later point during the meeting, District 16 Supervisor Rick Rose moved for indefinite postponement, which gives the committee the ability to take the appointment back up at any time. In practice, this is a means to sink the appointment, because it essentially blocks it from coming to a vote of the full County Board. Rose explained that he was doing this not because he disliked Mahoney: “While law enforcement should have a seat at the table, it should not spearhead a department of justice reform.” He mentioned Parisi’s November 22 veto of a scaled-back proposal for a new Dane County Jail facility as a failure of reform, saying that “We have a responsibility to get back on track.”

After District 20 Supervisor Jeff Weigand accused his colleagues of “playing games” with the motion, various Supervisors made it quite clear they were not playing; the motion to indefinitely postpone succeeded 4-3. Supervisors April Kigeya, Dana Pellebon, Gray, and Rose voted in favor. Richelle Andrae, Analiese Eicher, and Weigand voted against. 

What does this mean for the appointment of Mahoney? It might end there. Parisi and his allies may try to bring it back to the full County Board, which would require a 45-day wait, and a majority vote by the full board sometime in September. 

That all means the Department of Justice Reform may be without leadership for as long as six months, unless the board and Parisi can work something out for an interim director.

Notable failings

Let’s look at the media coverage and examine some highlights from Mahoney’s career. Does he have a track record as a reformer? Why was he picked?

First, there’s one simple, straightforward event that should leap out as disqualifying: the shaming of people posting bail in a possibly-defamatory press release during the summer of 2020. People accused of crimes have rights. They’re supposedly innocent until proven guilty in this country. If Dave Mahoney can’t even agree with that, how are we trusting him to reform? 

When Mahoney retired in May 2021, a story from Channel 3000 stated that “He pushed hard for better treatment for those battling addiction and mental health issues, including his long push for a new jail, where his intentions have always been about humane treatment and compassion.” We have to stop our media from assuming the stated intentions of politicians are their real intentions. If Mahoney actually cared about humane treatment, he would have acted to get more people out of jail instead of shaming them in press releases. Newer cages are still cages. 

In a June 14 editorial, The Cap Times’ editorial board claims Mahoney is an advocate for alternatives to incarceration. But to anyone actually paying attention, he’s been one of the more pro-incarceration voices in the county. Mahoney did not “shake things up,” as The Cap Times asserts, and while he did push from time to time for addiction treatment programs and other options for offenders, he did not advocate for those programs to happen outside of DCSO. Mahoney has consistently pushed for the biggest possible version of a new Dane County Jail, even after retiring. And Mahoney was behind the wheel of the new jail project when some shady decisions led to a more expensive plan.

We still don’t know who messed up the Public Safety Building’s design or construction: the county can’t find the records required. Oopsie! But the structural engineers who found the issues with adding floors onto that building recommended getting a second opinion at the time. Public Works and then-Sheriff Dave Mahoney opted not to. They never even got a loose estimate of how much it would cost to shore up; they just loudly claimed the cost was “prohibitive,” and then went full-bore on a plan that now has us spending $179 million, with over $20 million spent just on planning. For more details on this, see “Structural issues” in our previous Tone Madison coverage.

Building big jails with medical facilities in them is not some kind of alternative to incarceration. It’s just sparkling punishment. We’re still arresting homeless people and folks with mental illness, thinking that putting them in a cage is going to fix things.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: “criminal justice reform” in Dane County has been a cycle of paying consultants and then barely listening to what they say. Then we rinse and repeat. It’s been a useless snake-eating-its-own-tail situation, generating reports but never making any real systemic changes. People with power, like Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, will admit that “mass incarceration… did not make us safer,” but then our racist disparities and carceral system stay the same.

Systemic snake oil

Since The Cap Times’ editorial quotes Mahoney saying that he’s excited about “implementing a data-driven plan for criminal justice reform,” let’s check some data real quick. 

First, recall that only 6% of Dane County’s overall population is Black. If we look at DCSO’s 2006 annual report, the average daily jail population for 2006 was 1,092, with 16,694 total bookings. Of those bookings, 36.4% were people “of African American descent.” 

Compare that to DCSO’s 2019 annual report (the latest one available on DCSO’s website). The jail’s average daily population that year was 718, with 13,188 total bookings. So we see that the overall jail population went down, but the 2019 report does not list bookings by demographic. 

DCSO did start releasing demographic reports in August 2020. (Wonder what happened that summer?) As of June 18, 2023, 407 of the 768 people in our jail are Black; that’s 53%. So the racial disparities are currently much worse by percentage. In a way, the past few decades of “criminal justice reform” have only reduced the number of white people in our jail. Mass incarceration is still clicking right along for people of color. Decarceration—but only for white people—is not great if we want to actually fix racial biases.

Jail populationAverage dailyWhiteWhite %BlackBlack %
Average 2006109267561.8%39736.4%
Average 2019718????
Average 2023768?36747.8%40753.0%

(Side quest: you can scroll through the rest of those annual reports to see the kind of consent-manufacturing and “law enforcement” propaganda for punishment that our tax money gets spent on instead of actually investing in communities.) 

If we’re going to generate numbers and be “data-driven” in our reforms, how about we generate some numbers that might actually make impacts? Numbers that might drive real change? For example, we could look into how many felony arrests (especially those with long jail stays) are dismissed in Dane County. In New York State, a recent dive by civil rights attorney Scott Hechinger found that 82% of felony arrests do not result in felony convictions. Or the county could finally release information breaking down the demographics of who gets cash bail as opposed to no-money-down signature bonds—a number sure to be horrifying. It seems very unlikely that Mahoney is the person who will kick start any of this.

After 14 years of Mahoney’s supposed reform and a few years under Kalvin Barrett, his hand-picked successor, we still have some of the worst racial biases in arrests and jail population in the United States. You can’t just say loudly over and over that you’re all about reform. You have to actually change things.

A lack of accountability

Another disqualifying event from late in Mahoney’s career is when deputies broke Jimmie Joshua’s pelvis and left him in an isolation cell for hours, failing to take him to the hospital for more than 16 hours after the injury. For more on this, see the first episode of Tone Madison‘s new podcast, Inhumane Dane.

On January 19, 2021, almost a month after the incident, Jimmie’s fiance messaged then-Sheriff Mahoney on Facebook. He responded, “I’ll look into this.” She didn’t hear from him after that, so she messaged him again on January 27; Mahoney asked for a cell phone number. Davidson says a deputy called, but didn’t provide much information. When she messaged him again on February 18, Mahoney said, “The information was provided to the jail staff who did check on him.”

That was the end of DCSO’s official response to the incident. To our knowledge, zero accountability ever happened.

Mahoney announced his retirement on January 18, 2021.

Stuck in the gears

Mahoney is a uniquely bad choice if we actually want change. And granted, he would be only temporary; but that’s not just temporarily bad if he’s involved in the process of picking the office’s permanent director. Or if he becomes a “counselor” for the chosen director, as The Cap Times’ editorial suggests.

Almost anyone would be a better pick for real reform. Why would Parisi pick an insider? Well, it’s the status quo to blindly continue the status quo while claiming you’re a bold reformer. Also, neoliberal institutions love to claim that only insiders can make any effective changes, which conveniently protects themselves from outside forces. When a critic of the cops is involved in reform, that’s controversial. But when a guy who didn’t fix any disparities during his long law-enforcement career is picked to ostensibly fix those disparities? That’s just common sense! 

This all continues the County Executive’s slapfight with the County Board; first, the veto of the Black Caucus’ scaled-down jail plan, then, more recently, drama went down over his pick to lead the county’s Department of Human Services. Now Parisi claims the Board wants long nationwide searches for all departmental director positions, when they really just had problems with his Human Services nominee, District 77 Assembly Rep. Sheila Stubbs. 

Pellebon went on the record during the PP&J committee meeting on June 22 to say, “The hiring process [of the Human Services director] was stopped, not by any action of the county board. The hiring process was stopped by the county executive. At no point in time did anyone on the floor, or in a resolution, say anything to the effect that we require a national search for a director position. That is a false narrative.”

After the Board rejected Stubbs in May, Parisi did an end-run around the body by appointing former mayoral candidate Gloria Reyes to a “co-deputy director” position that didn’t require the Board’s sign-off.

The delay involved is definitely irking some supervisors. The national search process the County Executive has kicked off will first call for requests for proposals for a hiring firm, which will close possibly by September. From there, the hiring process is estimated to take another 90 days.

All this time, resources, and rigamarole for this department to tell us what we already know we need to do: stop arresting and jailing so many people, and abolish cash bail. We need to make sweeping changes that will get people out of the punishment system’s sights entirely, and provide more options for people in crisis that don’t involve law enforcement at all, like the crisis triage center.

What will this new layer of bureaucracy—kick-started with a $1,266,500 allocation in the county’s 2023 budget, including a $160,000 salary for the director position—actually change? It can fund a bunch of positions, but what will they do? 

How, exactly, will this department do anything to convince law enforcement to put less people in jail? The various groups that arrest people have had decades to “reform” and they have failed. We don’t need more data-driven plans, especially since DSCO and the Community Justice Council have failed to gather adequate data. 

The Department of Justice Reform is not off to a hopeful start with this first attempted pick. We know reversing mass incarceration must happen. Slotting someone like Mahoney in as the first choice to supposedly “continue” the “reforms” shows how shameful our county’s weak attempts to decarcerate are.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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