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What’s on the table

The Marathon County Board of Supervisors did the right thing on Thursday. The board in an 11-22 vote rebuffed a call from District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon to cut the county’s Start Right program in order to fund an additional two positions in her office, but, recognizing the plight of her overworked, stressed out staff, agreed to a comprehensive review of the county’s justice system.

The board rightly refused to shoulder the state’s responsibility for staffing county DA’s offices, even if that means slower prosecution of crimes and losing experienced prosecutors to burn-out.

County board chairman Kurt Gibbs summed up the situation. He said it made no sense for the county, up against levy limits imposed by the state, to fund state prosecutor positions with money it didn’t have. The chairman said to do so was to give up any leverage the county might have in the future to get the state to meet its obligation.

This tough stance has a precedent. Years ago, a cash-strapped Department of Transportation called on Marathon County to share in the cost of snowplowing state highways. The county said no, taking a hard line. That firm position paid off. The state finally came up with the needed maintenance dollars. STH 29 and 39 were plowed that winter on the state’s nickel, not the county’s.

This said, we think the county slow walks a justice system review at its peril.

Following Thursday’s vote, District Attorney Wetzsteon indicated in a statement that a decade of short funding was enough and, still being short nearly six prosecutors, she may ratchet back efforts to process offenders outside of the traditional criminal process--through treatment, counseling or community service. Should this happen, the DA’s Office could flood an already crowded jail with new inmates.

We are hopeful that a review can deliver results.

We take our optimism from La Crosse County. Here is a county that shares with Marathon County a similar population and crime rate, but seems to have a better handle on its justice system.

Here are the numbers. LaCrosse County has 122,000 people; Marathon County, 136,000. The southwest Wisconsin county saw its annual drug arrests increase from 967 to 1,020 between 201418 while its overall yearly arrests fell from 9,544 to 8,959 during the same time period. Marathon County annual drug arrests increased from 735 to 871 in 2014-18, while overall yearly arrests decreased from 6,406 to 5,441.

Despite a similar crime profile, the two counties, which both have five judges apiece, have different justice system outcomes. In 2018, Marathon County had 90 inmates in jail for over two years. There were only 35 jail inmates for that length of time in La Crosse County.

Here’s, perhaps, a bottom line. Last week, Marathon County had 309 jail inmates scattered across five counties. The La Crosse County jail had 41 percent less prisoners, 182.

What might account for this difference? Likely, lots of factors. One is that La Crosse County got rid of Huber prisoners years ago. Any prisoner safe enough to work in that county sleeps at home with an electronic ankle bracelet on, not in jail. Second, the county has a human services department which, perhaps, can better react to criminal misdeeds by its mentally ill, drug addicted and alcoholic population than Marathon County, which has a ragtag justice system spread across multiple departments, including North Central Health Care. Five years ago, a Marathon County consultant recommended the human services model, but, after a major battle, the status quo largely prevailed.

Thus the county board on Thursday rightly refrained from using its levy-limit restricted property tax dollars to fund a state responsibility. And it also correctly called for a major task force to review the county’s justice system. Now, the county board has to be willing to look at success stories like La Crosse County and be willing to make big changes, even if that means, possibly, ending Huber Law incarceration, restructuring services at North Central Health Care or even creating a new county department.

This is no time for minor reforms. Major structural change has to be on the table.