Six years after opening a new jail, Eau Claire County officials are sending inmates elsewhere because the space is overcrowded, prompting a county committee to consider when, or if, to build a jail addition.
The county has spent about $200,000 this year to house inmates in Chippewa and Dunn counties, and projections call for the figure to rise in coming years as the number of inmates outgrows available jail space in Eau Claire County.
Given that spending and a tight budget, members of the county Judiciary and Law Committee are seeking a jail population study. The committee is scheduled to discuss the matter at 4 p.m. today in Room 1273 of the county Courthouse, 721 Oxford Ave.
Committee members want the Criminal Justice Collaborating Council, consisting of people familiar with the local criminal justice system, to conduct a jail population study. The information would be used to make future jail management decisions, which could include a building project estimated to cost between $3.5 million and $5 million.
The jail, which opened in September 2012, was built with an empty fourth cellblock for future space needs. Finishing that area could add 96 beds. In addition to the construction, other costs would include adding 10 to 12 more employees to staff the cellblock.
Jails are typically considered safe when they are at or below 80 percent capacity, and that figure is 258 inmates in the Eau Claire County Jail. However, on a few occasions the jail population has topped 300, Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer said. The secure part of the jail, where people convicted of more serious offenses and those awaiting trial are housed, is especially crowded.
“We’re getting to the point with overcrowding in our jail that we have to take a serious look at it again,” committee member and county Supervisor Sue Miller said.
Dan Bresina, an Eau Claire County sheriff’s office captain, said the Criminal Justice Collaborating Council has examined the justice system in recent years to determine reasons for incarceration. The group hopes to prepare a report by June with more detailed information related to the jail.
As the number of inmates — prompted in part by a significant methamphetamine problem — has continued to grow, county officials are grappling with a jail overcrowding problem that feels all too familiar. For years before the construction of the new jail, the county spent money to have some of its inmates at other secure locations because of a lack of capacity here.
Coming up with additional funding for a jail addition and staffing could prove difficult, Miller acknowledged. But spending money to house inmates elsewhere is a challenge too, she said, especially given current budget constraints.
“At what point will it cost us more to continue to house inmates elsewhere (than to build a jail addition)?” Miller said. “We want to get the information so we have a better idea about that.”
Many inmates are in the jail for 10 days or fewer because of probation violations, figures show. While those violations are regulated by the state Department of Corrections, the state doesn’t provide funding for those jail stays, leaving the county to foot the bill, committee member and county Supervisor Stella Pagonis said.
Jail numbers have grown in recent years in large part because of methamphetamine-related crimes. Finding better ways to deal with that issue “is requiring a whole lot of rethinking on our part,” Pagonis said.
Treatment courts in Eau Claire County, which offer alternatives to jail, are helping, but more remains to be done on that front to meet demand for those services, Miller said. She would like to see treatment court options expanded, she said, “but where is that money going to come from?”
Sarah Ferber of Eau Claire is associate director of the Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, a group that seeks reform of the criminal justice system. She praised the efforts of county treatment courts but said more resources should be put into treatment, transitional housing and other services designed to keep people from winding up back in jail.
“If you build (the jail), they will come,” Ferber said. “That is not the answer. ... We need to do a better job of looking at the reasons people go to jail and put our efforts into addressing those issues, not just simply build more jail space.”
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