KRIEGL COLUMN: Sauk County Jail spending way out of whack

KRIEGL COLUMN: Sauk County Jail spending way out of whack

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For most years since 2003, the Sauk County Jail has had three staff to handle nearly the same average daily population (ADP) of inmates (including renters) as one staff member handled in the old jail. From 2000 to 2019, the Sauk County Jail staff increased by about 52 people while the rest of Sauk County government decreased by 39. Compared to 2000, the 2019 jail staffing is almost 300% higher, the staffing of the rest of the Sheriff’s Department is about 200% higher and the combined staffing of all other county departments is 20% lower.

The Sauk County Jail is inefficiently staffed, especially when compared to its past, to other jails, to the rest of Sauk County government, and even compared to the other Sauk County Sheriff’s Department divisions.

I doubt any other government unit including schools, private business, or volunteer organizations in Sauk County tripled their staff for the same amount of clients or output since 2000.

Inefficient staffing is why the Sauk County Jail is likely the most expensive Wisconsin jail per inmate/day ($223 in 2018) and inmate/year ($81,149 in 2018). This is four times higher than many jails claim and will increase in 2020 with about $9.5 million budgeted for the jail, of which, about $7.5 million is operational cost for a jail that cost $25 million to build.

From 2004 through 2019, Sauk County will have spent $443.2 million in property tax dollars of which the Sheriff’s Department spent $219.2 million of which $134.4 million was spent on owning and operating the jail. Jail income from rent and inmate fees was $20.6 million or $113.9 million less than expenses and at least $50 million more than necessary.

Jails are not very effective in preventing initial offenses or repeat offenses by released inmates. A July 2017 Vera Institute of Justice report titled “The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer” clearly shows that over-jailing of low-level offenders can actually increase crime rates. That’s because as many as 80% of county jail inmates are non-violent offenders often with mental health and/or addiction issues which often result from adverse childhood experiences that can be addressed far more cost effectively via early prevention and/or alternatives to jailing.

In May 1998, the monumental Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) was released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study surveyed childhood trauma experiences of more than 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patient volunteers and showed that people with three or more of the 10 identified ACEs suffered significantly more from alcohol and drug abuse, higher jailing rates, mental health issues, chronic fatal diseases and shorter lifespans.

The study has produced many similar studies in all states and many countries that supplement the initial findings.

A new survey from Wales, found that 84% of male inmates had experienced at least one ACE compared with a Welsh average of 46%.

A July 2014 study of all states shows that poverty is the most common of the ten ACE factors, followed by the loss of a biological parent by any cause.

Together these and other studies confirm the old proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.

Safety is freedom from illness, injury and death. Data from the CDC shows that law enforcement interfaces with only 5% to 6% of causes of death and injuries and about zero of the causes of illness. Consequently, public safety is much more than law enforcement. For 2017, the top five causes of death were diseases, which accounted for 61% of all deaths.

Within law enforcement, jails and prisons contribute the least to public safety in part because excessive jail spending deprives all other county services (including alternatives to jailing) of resources that has diminished progress toward the more effective alternatives.

I and others will continue to make proposals to reduce the excessive staffing and spending on our jail to reallocate funding for proven cost-effective alternatives to jailing. With a five-year average turnover rate of 15 people in the Sheriff’s Department, it should be possible to right-size the jail with minimal employment disruptions.

Longtime readers know that I have researched this issue carefully. As usual, I’m willing to compare evidence about this issue upon request.

Tom Kriegl is a member of the Sauk County Board of Supervisors representing Greenfield, most of Fairfield and part of the town of Baraboo. He can be reached at 608-356-4373 or

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