A report released this month by the Justice Policy Institute speaks to the rapid growth in jail populations across the country and the impacts on taxpayers and communities. This is not just the typical report arguing that "lock-em-up" policies are expensive; instead, this one focuses on the distinction between those held in jails and in prisons, including fiscal considerations that are directly relevant to Wisconsin.
Many are unaware of the distinction between jails and prisons, but from the perspective of local property taxpayers, it's an important one. Jails, which are typically administered by county governments, once were reserved specifically for defendants awaiting trial or those receiving very short sentences. Today, county jails also have become receptacles for overcrowded state prisons, and they themselves have become overcrowded with individuals with substance abuse problems and/or mental illness, the result of de-institutionalization policies and tougher penalties on drug use.
The report's primary statistical point is that the jail population nationwide is increasing at a much faster rate than prisons and driving overall increases in incarceration. It notes that 10% of those held in jails nationwide were actually sentenced to prison; that 25% of those in jail are held on drug crimes; and that a staggering 60% suffer from mental health problems.
Numerous concerns are raised by this data, not the least of which is that jails are not funded or otherwise well equipped to handle people with physical or mental health issues. As the report notes, however, there is also a significant fiscal concern for local taxpayers:
"Jail incarceration is an expensive proposition for counties, with hidden financial costs...When small counties cannot manage an overcrowded jail properly, they can face multimillion-dollar lawsuits over poor conditions—lawsuits whose judgments create more fiscal obligations that the community must shoulder...Even when counties try to offset costs by leasing jail beds to the state or federal government, some communities are still awaiting the cash windfall. Several communities have been stuck with million-dollar tabs because they must pay for jail beds they do not need even as state and federal contracts vanish."
Interestingly, both of those concerns are playing out in Milwaukee. As the Journal Sentinel has reported, the County is being sued for violating a decree on overcrowding by allegedly holding dozens of people in jail holding areas for more than 30 hours in 2003. A January court ruling -- now under appeal -- ordered the County to pay individual compensation to inmates for physical and emotional suffering, a proposition that could have significant implications on the County's already dire fiscal situation.
Meanwhile, the County's Jail and House of Correction now house hundreds of federal and state inmates for whom no room exists in overcrowded prisons. This year's county budget ups the number of state inmates by 192, which seemingly produces needed revenue for the county, but which makes it vulnerable to the whims of state corrections officials, who have been known to abruptly pull out of such contracts.
As Milwaukee County struggles to properly maintain its parks and cultural institutions, run its transit system, and provide an appropriate safety net for the poor, the fiscal impacts of its growing corrections budgets often get overlooked. In 2008, property taxpayers will provide $96.6 million to fund detention activities in the Sheriff's budget and the House of Correction, which amounts to 39% of the total county property tax levy. That is up from $80.2 million in 2004.
To their credit, Milwaukee law enforcement, judicial and political leaders have formed a Community Justice Council to grapple with a variety of issues facing the criminal justice system, including those that are impacting corrections populations. From the perspective of local property taxpayers and those concerned with the County's ability to fund its "quality of life functions", there is a lot riding on their success.