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Bill threatens jail construction budgets

Paul Snyder

Counties could drain their jail construction budgets paying for inmate services under a state bill that would remove restrictions on how the money is spent.

“As I see it, this is good people meaning well to fund alternatives for counties,” said Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer. “But it’s going to create problems down the line.”

State Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, disagrees and said his bill would not dictate how counties spend their jail money. Rather, he said, the bill simply would give counties more spending options.

According to state law, if a person pays a fine for violating state, county or municipal law, part of the money goes into a county jail budget. That money is used to buy jail equipment or pay for maintenance, expansion or construction.

Olsen’s bill would let counties spend the money on inmate education or medical services. It makes sense, he said, particularly if the alternative is raising taxes to pay for inmate services rather than tapping an unused budget.

“It came out of listening to some people in Waushara County,” Olsen said. “They just built a jail, so they’re not looking at any major upgrades soon. But they have this money that they can’t use for health or education programs.”

Olsen said Waushara County’s pot of money is relatively small and would not be enough to cover construction of a new jail. Waushara County representatives did not return calls before deadline Tuesday seeking the exact amount of available jail budget money.

If the state lets counties use jail construction money for education programs, there likely will be some takers.

Eau Claire County Supervisor Will Fantle said the county is trying to settle on a site for an estimated $59 million county jail project, but County Board members, wary of new construction, will always consider options that could reduce recidivism.

Building a new jail is always a prickly subject, Fantle said. While Eau Claire County residents might not recall supervisors over a decision to build new, as happened in Monroe County, counties should have as many options as possible, he said.

Eau Claire County, on average, accumulates $160,000 annually in fine money for construction and maintenance.

Cramer said it’s not much, but it can help over time. Freeing that money for inmate services would make it more difficult to find construction money when it is time to build.

“It’s a constant taffy pull between maintenance and programs,” Cramer said. “This is not a bill that’s going to fix those problems.”

One comment

  1. Maybe, just maybe, we should review our incarceration policies and quit building so many jails. Like decriminalizing the “use” of drugs and other nonviolent offenses. It costs multiples times more to jail users than to put them into rehab. But my guess is that a study of campaign contributions from private prison companies will give us the answer.

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