Scott McDonell still has a copy of a press release issued in March 2003 by Gary Hamblin, then Dane County sheriff, decrying jail overcrowding. Though the county's costly new Public Safety Building had opened less than a decade before, it was already bursting at the seams. In 2002 as many as 69 inmates a day were housed in other county jails, at an annual cost to the county of more than $350,000.
If trends continued, the release warned, "Dane County will spend more than $93 million in the next 10 years to house inmates in other jails" - that is, "if available beds can be found."
County Board conservatives, in particular, pressed for the addition of at least two new floors. But McDonell and County Exec Kathleen Falk resisted, preferring to try ways to reduce the number of people Dane County was locking up.
These efforts culminated in the hiring of Alan Kalmanoff, a national consultant, to review the county's criminal justice system. Kalmanoff's September 2007 report made more than 100 recommendations for change, many of which of have been adopted.
For instance, says McDonell, the county now routinely schedules court settlement conferences so fewer people sit in jail waiting to learn the particulars of deals that could set them free. It's reduced the number of people arrested on bench warrants for missing court dates by improving the notification process. And it's made increased use of electronic monitoring.
"Between all these things, the jail population has dropped, to almost what [Kalmanoff] said it should be," says McDonell. "It's been a tremendous turnaround."
McDonell says the jail population on Monday was down to 768, although it is higher at other times. According to Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney, the jail has had an average daily population of 871 so far this year, down from a high of 1,224 in July 2006. And instead of housing Dane inmates in other counties, the jail is now renting space to the state Department of Corrections and other counties, which has brought in $425,600 this year, through the end of November.