The county executive’s 2009 budget proposes merging the Sheriff’s Office and the House of Correction (HOC) under the leadership of Sheriff David Clarke, a proposal recently endorsed by the county board’s Finance Committee. This decision would transfer $49 million in additional funds to the sheriff’s jurisdiction for operation of HOC custodial facilities, the Huber/work-release program, the home detention program, the Community Justice Resource Center, and several other rehabilitative programs. This would result in the sheriff having control over a $141 million budget, of which $121 million is supported by property tax levy – 48% of the total levy allocated countywide. While this is a substantial increase from the sheriff’s 2008 property tax levy allocation of $73.4, the department would gain the burden and responsibility of managing a correctional facility with significant budgetary deficits and in severe need of efficiency and safety reforms.
Autonomy of the Sheriff – Benefit or Drawback?
The House of Correction is currently managed by a superintendent appointed by the county executive. With this setup, the county executive is ultimately responsible. If the merger is included in the 2009 adopted budget, that accountability would transfer to the sheriff. Not only is the sheriff a separately elected constitutional officer whose ultimate accountability is to the voters, but state statutes add significant legal authority to administer his responsibilities without interference from the county executive or county board.
On the one hand, the sheriff’s autonomy allows him to act quickly, explore innovations, ensure safety, and manage his budget without board input. Proponents of the merger argue this autonomy is needed to properly respond to the rapidly changing needs of custodial institutions. However, the decision to merge the two departments places significant authority in the hands of one individual to decide custodial and corrections policy. The county’s legal counsel informed the Finance Committee that the board’s only recourse, if the merger fails to meet expectations, is to reverse the merger and revert to a distinct correctional facility as is currently in place.
Given the probability of a merger and the liberty of the sheriff, what changes can we expect? Where the sheriff previously dealt mainly with inmates awaiting trial, he would now also manage sentenced inmates. To be successful, the sheriff must determine how best to house/monitor all inmates with the resources allocated to him, while also ensuring that sentences are served as intended by the presiding judges. The following are some of the key policy questions surrounding the merger. Many of these questions, incidentally, apply not only to the current sheriff, but to his successors as well.
- In the sheriff’s view, what purpose does the House of Correction serve? Will the “correction” of inmate behavior still be a high priority under the sheriff as currently seen at the House of Correction with the various treatment and rehabilitation programs offered? Or will the sheriff’s philosophy focus more on the punitive aspects of incarceration?
- How will the sheriff manage the work-release center and the home detention program? What steps must be taken to close the Community Correctional Center on January 1st? What process will the sheriff employ to determine eligibility for home detention? Which technologies will be utilized to monitor these inmates? A June 2008 Public Policy Forum report indicated that the work-release population consists mostly of drunken driving offenders. Given that reality and the recent focus on the problem of drunken driving by the Journal Sentinel, what consideration will be given to the risks posed by these offenders when they are on release time or home detention?
- Could judges change their sentencing decisions based on the decisions of the sheriff? For example, if work release inmates are routinely placed on home detention, judges wanting offenders to be housed in a secure facility may stop giving work-release sentences. Sentencing changes like this could have an economic impact on Milwaukee County.
- What efficiencies could this merger provide Milwaukee County? For example, could the merger produce flexibility in staff deployment between the jail and the HOC, reducing the pressure to hire more correctional positions?
As a National Institute of Correction audit shows, the House of Correction needs a drastic operational change. There is no question that the sheriff takeover meets the definition of such change, but whether it is ultimately successful will depend on the answers to this challenging set of questions and how well the sheriff manages his enhanced resources.