Public health, public safety, and the people caught in the coils

What’s in Dane County’s 2022 budget for care and incarceration.

What’s in Dane County’s 2022 budget for care and incarceration.

Illustration: A jagged green vinyl snake in the form of a steadily rising chart vomits yellow caution stitches below an upside down train track sky, with grit underneath the snake looming over the Wisconsin State Capitol as seen through the cage at the top of the Overture Center. Illustration by Dan Fitch.

2022 is an unprecedented budget year for Dane County elected officials: they plan to invest $11.5 million in a Crisis Triage Center, coordinate with the City of Madison to buy and refurbish a hotel for housing, and fund more mental health care and housing projects. Meanwhile, the County is also trying to figure out what to do about the $148 million jail consolidation project, a proposal for construction of a new County jail facility. For years, County officials have argued that a new jail is needed to close the two unsafe floors of the City County Building (CCB) jail. With ballooning costs, some in the community are asking to keep the jail population down, as it has been during COVID, without building a giant tower. (For full transparency, I’m one of the people who has been organizing to reduce incarceration without a new jail). These things may not seem related—our housing and mental health and the jail—but they are connected by more than the bland budget that pays for them.


Dane County Executive Joe Parisi put the jail consolidation project on pause in June, saying: “I’ve been becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the increasing costs as time has gone on.” It’s clear that in his executive budget for 2022, Parisi has lots to say about public health, which captures 42 percent of the year’s total budget. Yet the budget has nothing to say about the enormous held-over jail cost, which continues to increase—and threatens to grow even further—in estimates from consulting firm Mead & Hunt. On November 15, Parisi sent a memo to the Board of Supervisors listing three potential paths forward for the jail consolidation project, saying: “The reality is the future of the jail project remains in limbo because there’s no consensus among policymakers on how to proceed.”

First, let’s dig into the “public health” measures Dane County is funding, and then tackle the “public safety” questions around the jail. Funding for these things stands on a spectrum of how we choose to treat social problems. “Public health” is on one end, dealing proactively with social issues in ways that prevent “crime” and other issues as early as possible. Health and care, for the public good. Meanwhile, the “public safety” of the jail on the opposite end represents waiting too long and paying too much, dealing with those “public health” problems well after they have become a full-blown metaphorical emergency room visit.

New public health and housing initiatives

The biggest new public health item the County is investing in is $11.5 million to design and build a Crisis Triage Center. A major goal that RI International, hired by the County to consult on the Triage Center, has talked about is a “no wrong door” policy: if you come to the Center, they will help you. RI International recommends no armed security staff and hiring staff with lived experience trained in de-escalation. Dane County Department of Human Services Director Shawn Tessmann told Tone Madison via email that the “formal implementation plan for how those principles will get operationalized will only be developed after finding an operator and committing that planned approach into contract language.” So, this Center is still very much in the planning stages, and the plans could change, but it sounds pretty great so far. We do need to ensure that care systems work for people of color because Wisconsin has huge disparities there, too, not just in our jails and prisons.

The Behavioral Health Resource Center opened in November 2020 on Badger Road and will receive $1.2 million in funding next year. Tessmann explains, “The two centers—the CTC and the BHRC—are interrelated but different in their emphasis. The BHRC is intended to help people find resources to get help before or hopefully in lieu of a crisis occurring. It is prevention focused. The CTC is intended to better help people de-escalate from a crisis itself.”

Of course the pandemic affects all of this public health planning. The County has allocated $6.5 million to continue the pandemic-era hotel sheltering program until June 30, 2022, and has set aside another $5.25 million from federal American Rescue Plan funds for other unexpected pandemic expenses. There’s $1 million to continue the Emergency Food Pandemic Response, administered by Second Harvest Food Bank. Nineteen new positions have been added at the county level, supporting various areas including disease control, testing and vaccination. Parisi noted via email to Tone Madison that the level of support for our neighbors experiencing homelessness is historic: “Millions have been spent protecting those most vulnerable [to COVID-19] from congregate shelters.”

The County has also allocated $2 million to pitch in on a possible collaboration with the City of Madison to buy a hotel or other existing facility to turn into affordable housing. Parisi says the two local governments will put out an RFP to “hopefully entice a development partner to transition a property into affordable housing.” And Dane County will continue the Hotels to Housing program, which funds housing for folks for up to two years; this began in June and has moved 90 people from hotels into permanent housing of their own, and there’s $8.2 million to do more of this in 2022.

There are some standard housing items in the budget, including $6 million to support the Affordable Housing Development Fund and $3 million to help modernize Dane County Housing Authority properties. There is $300,000 added to support outreach services for folks who are living unsheltered, and $250,000 for legal services for families dealing with eviction or foreclosure. There’s also $500,000 to the Restoring Roots partnership, which intends to fund 50 units of stable housing and recovery services for those who struggle with addiction. According to Tessmann, the partnership is still working to locate a property, but “[the] real estate market has made this search challenging.”

Some projects did not get more funds during this budget cycle. For example, the County could have chosen to help expand the City of Madison’s CARES pilot mental health responder program across Dane County at large. The Madison Common Council approved funding for a second vehicle and $82,000 in additional operating expenses for CARES in 2022, shifting $82,000 out of the Madison Police Department budget. That means the CARES pilot is only active in the central district right now, between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays… so, uhh, schedule your mental health emergencies accordingly, everyone. The cops will of course be working 24/7, but CARES is only part time.

The county’s public safety framework

The Criminal Justice Council (CJC) and its subcommittees are the main entities for public safety oversight within Dane County. Parisi told Tone Madison in an email: “[The] next four CJC meetings will focus on Huber [work release] policies, the implementation of a population review panel, the implementation of weekend initial appearance and policies related to DOC holds and technical violations.” The question being: is this enough to keep people out of the jail, or can more be done?

In the 2020 budget, Parisi created the position of a jail population manager, and during June 2020 (at the height of the George Floyd protests) the County Board said in a press release that they would “encourage [the sheriff’s office] to amplify the new role of the jail population manager and convene weekly meetings with key stakeholders in order to safely reduce jail population.” After talking to five different people at the County, in the Dane County Sheriff’s office, and the District Attorney’s office, including several who were unaware of a jail population manager, I eventually confirmed that there is such a person, Michelle Deforest, but was unable to find public documentation of weekly meetings or what Deforest’s work entails.

In his most recent memo, with decisions around the jail up in the air, Parisi warns County Board Supervisors that Sheriff Kalvin Barrett may plan to ship people to other county jails because of conditions in the CCB—that won’t be cheap or good for anyone. This isn’t the first time that threat has surfaced. Former Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney also pointed to the potential for moving people to other jail facilities as a reason to build a new jail. Isthmus reported in 2013 that just a few years before Mahoney was elected Sheriff in 2006, Dane County paid more than $350,000 to move as many as 69 people to neighboring county jails in 2002 in response to overcrowding. In response, some Supervisors called for an addition to the PSB—less than a decade after it was built. Instead, Dane County adopted recommendations from a consultant and reduced the jail population. It’s also worth noting that Dane County is still being paid to house some federal prisoners in the jail. JFA Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm, has recommended ending that arrangement, which would be an additional way to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the Dane County jail, rather than sending people from Dane County all over the state.

Updates on the new jail

The big unspoken question remains: what is the deal with the jail consolidation project? So far, over the years, many millions have been spent on consultants and plans for the jail consolidation, and those plans are still evolving. Of Dane County’s three current jail facilities, the Ferris Center, used for Huber work release, finally closed as planned. But the two City County Building (CCB) floors at the root of this issue remain open, along with the euphemistically named Public Safety Building (PSB). The new jail was originally planned as a $76 million addition, but when the County discovered that the PSB could not structurally support additional floors, they approved $72 million more in funding to continue, nearly doubling the cost of the project.


Amid uprisings for racial justice in the summer of 2020, Supervisor Elizabeth Doyle introduced Resolution 145 to halt work on the new jail and instead take action to lower the jail population. The resolution was weakened in committee and then indefinitely postponed, and never made it to the full County Board for a vote. Soon after Resolution 145’s demise, the jail planning process was delayed for several more months due to a budget overrun. Work began again that November, amid continued debates over the jail design. In June 2021, Parisi paused staff work on the jail when increasing construction costs threatened yet another budget overrun, while waiting for a new cost estimate from Mead & Hunt, and an analysis of the project from JFA Institute.

With $148 million plus interest already on the line for the jail consolidation project, and some of the funds sunsetting in January 2023, Supervisor Tim Rockwell tried to randomly add $23 million more in funding on October 27, with support from Sheriff Barrett—but without a final plan or details. The next day, JFA consultants presented a new possible plan in their final report, with an estimated cost of $138 million. But can we look at other options that, when combined, could keep the jail population even smaller and cost less? The Sheriff and CJC are saying no, but James Austin from JFA told the Board of Supervisors that the overall population is up to our systems to decide. And there’s a chance that the decision to spend millions on a new jail could come to the community for a vote.

In Parisi’s November 15 memo to the Board, he says: “[Few people] dispute the need to replace the outdated jail facilities in the City County Building. There are, however, understandably different visions for how that can be accomplished.” He frames three possible options to move forward. One is the JFA Institute’s recommended option for a six-floor tower with around 904 beds, and no Public Safety Building renovations. Another is a hybrid plan that also scraps the PSB renovations but keeps the tower at seven stories. Meanwhile, Analiese Eicher, chair of the Board of Supervisors, is pushing full steam ahead. In a November 16 message to the Board, Eicher said that Parisi’s pause on the Public Works staff was a loss of four months and “short-sighted,” and that receiving the memo this week without any notice from Parisi was “a little surprising and disappointing.” She then had James Austin give his presentation to the whole board November 18, attempting to push the project forward in some way. The third option Parisi mentions in the November 15 memo, though, is putting the original plan on the ballot as a binding referendum: allow voters to choose whether or not to spend $170 million on a new jail.

Should voters choose? That would be one democratic way forward. But what happens if the voters say no or the Board fails to find a solution? We still need to reduce the jail population. The two problematic floors of the CCB building are currently “housing” 225 to 250 people, according to JFA consultant James Austin’s November 18 presentation to the County Board, and it will take around three years to complete any construction on a tower. Are there ways we can reduce the jail population now that don’t involve a huge new, expensive tower?

Could we reuse the now-closed Ferris Center on Rimrock Road, with its 144 beds? (The sheriff currently says no, due to “classification”-related problems, but Austin said that when consultants tried to get information about the classification system, “there’s some issues there on how that classification system is functioning.”) When asked by Supervisor Mike Bare if there could be future plans that would further reduce our jail population, Austin said, “[JFA has] a handle on what does and doesn’t work. We’re more than happy to work with this county to achieve what it wants to achieve. I can’t predict… but I can show you how to reduce to the population you want. You want 500, 600, 700, 400… I’ll show you what you have to do, but it requires a lot of heavy lifting, for the courts in particular.” The JFA Institute has worked with other local government officials around the country,  including in New Orleans, which cut its jail population in half well before the pandemic began.

Can we reduce the overall number of arrests by our police? They helped put us in this biased mess. Alternatively, can we ask our courts to do some heavy lifting? They’ve been complicit as well. One item to reconsider is our use of cash bail. Parisi claims via email to Tone Madison that “Dane County is a leader in exploring a thoughtful approach to the use of cash bail and its possible elimination. Cash bail is rarely utilized in Dane County, with the vast majority of defendants eligible for a signature bond.” This claim that cash bail is rarely utilized sounds great, until we look at the actual disparities in exactly who is given cash bail, which the folks running these systems are obscuring.

At an April 27 Public Protection and Judiciary (PP&J) committee meeting, Noemi Reyes, a research analyst for the Dane County Criminal Justice Council, presented some breakdowns of the bail data for 2020 RES-177, but the presentation failed to include raw numbers on who is assessed cash bail by race. This omission is telling; some members at the CJC meeting noticed it and requested the missing data. Reyes did not respond to a request for the numbers.

On the topic of bail, Parisi told Tone Madison via email, “The Courts continue to push ahead despite their impressive record on the use of bail. Our court commissioners have been utilizing a risk assessment tool for the past few years that could be used in the event a shift is made to eliminating cash bail. While some jurisdictions have made this leap, our courts are continuing to monitor our results and propose changes if warranted.” The risk assessment tool here is likely an AI-based algorithm like COMPAS, or something similar, so we’ll need to be careful about algorithmic bias silently replicating real-world biases. Over the past year, judges on the CJC have claimed that the legislature is somehow holding them back on abolishing bail, but we keep saying: the statutes leave it up to the judges, and bail is not about public safety.

Parisi is also interested in looking at how we do probation and parole holds, “especially in instances of technical (non-criminal) violations.” Here he’s talking about how you can go to jail in our state for a technical violation (often called “crimeless revocation.”) 40% of all Black individuals the state sent to prison between 2000 and 2015 were not convicted of new crimes—they were incarcerated for rule violations in non-public hearings.

The Sheriff and judges and many of the folks within the system claim loudly that the reductions to the jail population during COVID-19 simply cannot be made permanent. The Sheriff often talks about the “inhumane” and “embarrassing” CCB jail facility. But what’s going to stop this new tower from also being an inhumane, embarrassing mockery of supposed public safety? Incarceration doesn’t keep people safe. Jails and prisons have been found to cause the very problems they’re supposed to help fix.

Dane County has been really focused on this big new tower plan, and not enough on other options. Before COVID-19, when asked to predict the jail population, Mead & Hunt drew a straight line. They were wrong. If we plan to divest further from incarceration and help more people instead of tossing them into the snake’s habitat, we wouldn’t need to build a bigger tower for a bigger snake.

Options for diversion

So what is Dane County investing in to reduce the jail population? The 2022 budget includes funding for an administrator and staff to start a Behavioral Health Division, and the City of Madison and Dane County are both contributing money ($415,000 and $200,000 respectively) to Public Health Madison and Dane County to support the creation of an intervention hotline to “better support outreach, intervention, and case management services” in the City and County. That’s a good direction, because not all of the CJC reforms Parisi references will address keeping people out of jail in the first place. What we really need are more services intended to divert people before they reach the “belly of the snake,” as Judge Nicholas McNamara of the CJC recently put it. Let’s consider the five main paths of diversion from the Prison Policy Initiative’s Exits off the Highway to Mass Incarceration.

Pre-police encounter, people can be helped by community support options. Homeless people can be housed: Hotels to Housing and the hotel refurbishing project are examples. Occupy Madison’s tiny homes should be insulated for winter and the program expanded. People can be fed by food banks, community fridges, and so on, but housing is harder, and should be a given for those in need. The cause of homelessness or “crime” is not a moral failing. Causes can often be traced back to social disparities, driven by inequities in our systems. If we build a working social welfare safety net, fewer people who are currently accused of crimes will ever see the start of our criminal punishment process and be touched by the carceral snake’s tongue.

You shouldn’t need to get arrested in Dane County to receive social services, and hopefully the Crisis Triage Center and Behavioral Health Resource Centers become major resources to help folks. There’s also $300,000 in this budget to study a planned Behavioral Health Triage and Restoration Center. (Restorative and transformative justice are other practices of repairing harm, but they don’t really fit the snake metaphor. We do have some related experiments ongoing here, like the Dane County Restorative Court.)

Parisi says, “The Crisis Triage Center will likely not have an immediate impact on our sentenced population and will likely only have a minor impact on the churn of defendants who are booked into jail and often released on signature bond. Those who are likely to be transferred to the CTC are those who would have faced minor charges or who would not face any criminal charges but who could benefit from stabilization and referral to an appropriate care facility or treatment regimen.” 

In a CJC meeting on September 23, consultant Wayne Lindstrom explained how the Triage Center could impact jail numbers in a bit more detail: “[It] appears you have 125 misdemeanor cases under detention at any one time, staying 72 hours. And that’s probably the major diversion point. [The CTC] doesn’t help you with beds, because those individuals are kept in a booking area. But it certainly has expenses at the county level. That comes out to about 45,625 bed-days a year. If a majority of those could be diverted to the crisis triage center, you’re talking about roughly 15,000 diversions a year.” That’s 15,000 times someone doesn’t have to go to jail—certainly something.

Pre-arrest interventions could include programs like co-responder mental health response teams, such as the CARES pilot. Pre-arrest changes often encourage individual police officers not to arrest in some situations, letting people off with a warning or referring them to a provider, as with the Madison Addiction Recovery Initiative (MARI) program. But a better solution some cities are experimenting with is community-based diversion, along the lines of the national Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) model. Their website has an “Exploring” dot near us, but there are no Wisconsin jurisdictions listed below the map yet. We’re not currently exploring all these options to remove people from the punishment system before they feel the teeth of the snake, but we should be.

Pre-charge diversions happen at the prosecutor level, usually replacing the court process with a program the person must complete, or requirements they must meet. If the person doesn’t meet those requirements, the courts start back up and the snake starts chewing again. Locally, this includes programs like the Dane County District Attorney’s Deferred Prosecution Program.

Judge-led diversion can happen at the time of court proceedings, as well, but we have to remember all these attempts at the prosecutor and judge level only help people after they’ve already been chewed up by the process, often swallowed by the jail pre-trial for a while. Tools like deferred adjudication can help people keep a case off their record if they complete community service or other requirements. Mental health courts can integrate with treatment facilities to use a model of recovery that expects and prepares for a recurring cycle, as is normal with the hills and valleys we all experience in our mental health. That would be better than punishing people for their trauma and feeding them back into the jaws of the snake after it’s already attacked them.

Finally, keeping someone out of the belly of our prisons by using alternatives to incarceration at sentencing isn’t really diversion—it’s still part of the carceral system—but there are options that allow folks to avoid the harsh confinement of a prison sentence. This includes judges sentencing people to probation, house arrest and electronic monitoring, mandatory service, and fines. Our state mandates certain sentences, so only so much of this weak style of reformist-reform can happen at the local level. Plus, probation can land people back in a cage without them committing a crime. Other special courts like our Drug Court have known pitfalls. It would be better to fund more evidence-based drug treatment programs in the first place, well before it reaches a court.

The main point is that we need to keep more people out of this process entirely. We can choose to not let people get swallowed by the snake by building stronger support systems, actually treating trauma, and properly helping folks with personal emergencies before they become public safety risks. You can’t get well in a cell, and regressive folks who think locking “criminals” up makes us all safer should probably try to grow a little empathy. If you were having a major mental health issue, or struggling with addiction, or suffering housing insecurity, do you think a jail stay as a “resident” would help you out? Not likely.

Starving the snake

Our criminal punishment system isn’t broken. We know it’s working as it was designed: to punish marginalized people for the needs of capital and claim that it’s all in the best interests of “public safety.” Sure, we can pat ourselves on the back over jailing people at lower rates than elsewhere in the country here in Dane County, but that’s just because we are still wallowing in a bizarre mass incarceration experiment, imprisoning folks at three to five times the rates elsewhere in the world. If incarceration made us safer, we’d live in the safest country in the world. How many people in Wisconsin’s bloated prisons are stuck there from an original pass through Dane County’s criminal legal system and jail?

We’re still holding people in jail before trial on bail here for small charges, ruining many more lives than we need to, and we still don’t know how biased those choices are. Our jail is still always half full of Black folks, when Black people make up less than six percent of Dane County’s population. Meanwhile, in the great State of Wisconsin, our criminal punishment systems inflict disparities in arrests, sentences, and probation on Black, Native, and other marginalized people. We should stop giving money to a carceral system that imprisons these people at astounding rates to build a giant snake of a jail. These systems simply don’t keep us safe. They are making our world worse.

Instead, we must express our support for all these new diversion experiments. There are many possible ways to stop feeding people to the carceral snake. We need to push for more imagination to keep people out of the criminal punishment system, period. We can work hard, we can support better systems, and we can build those systems up in a cycle of constant improvement. We need to dream of a day when we’re not caging our fellow human beings at unbelievable rates, and take action based on those dreams. Eventually, maybe, we can build new, transformative systems to actually resolve trauma at its roots, and not cage people at all. That’s a long way off. It’s so far over the curve of the horizon we can’t see that future. Some folks can’t even imagine it, and they get angry when we try. But if we think hard and work hard, we will continue to find these paths forward to real public health.

Will Dane County consistently move to improve our public health and safety, taking a serious scalpel to the systemic biases that have made being not-white in our County so cruel? Or will we listen to the so-called criminal justice experts who got us into this mess, and build bigger jails and nastier enforcement tools to feed the snake? There are good experiments coming in this year’s budget, with attempts to triage people so they never even see the criminal punishment system. Decisions will be made about the jail. Elections for County Board are coming up in spring; let’s encourage our County politicians to help more people find a way to flourish instead of crushing them in the coils.

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