Friday, June 17, 2011

Milwaukee County's declining corrections population

With all of the doom and gloom surrounding the finances of Milwaukee County government, it is certainly worthy of attention when some promising fiscal news emerges from the Courthouse. Consequently, when the Public Policy Forum learned that the inmate population at the county's two adult detention facilities had plummeted, we took notice.

In researching the matter, we found that not only had the adult population declined in recent years, but the number of delinquent youth housed in state corrections institutions had dropped even more dramatically. And, upon investigating the dollar savings associated with these declining populations, we found even more eye-opening numbers.

Today, the Forum published a Research Brief documenting the steep drop in Milwaukee County detention populations and spending. In addition to laying out the numbers, we recommend actions by county leaders to determine why these trends are occurring, how they are impacting public safety, and what might be done to sustain them. Among the report's key findings:

  • The average number of adults and juveniles in detention each day was 2,892 in 2010, by far the lowest total in the past five years, and 16% lower than the average of 3,448 detainees held each day in 2008.

  • On the juvenile detention side, the average daily population (ADP) of Milwaukee County youth housed in state juvenile corrections institutions was 170, or 35% lower than the average of 263 just two years earlier. In addition, the ADP in the county’s own juvenile detention facility decreased 17% in that period (from 106 to 88), and the monthly average of active cases in the juvenile system plummeted 39% (from 2,971 to 1,823).

  • On the adult side, the total number of individuals under detention and/or the supervision of the Milwaukee County Sheriff declined by 455 between 2007 and 2010, a 14% decrease.

  • The reductions in detainee populations have been major contributors to substantial property tax levy reductions in the budgets of both the county’s Delinquency and Court Services Division (DCSD) and Office of the Sheriff. At DCSD, property tax levy expenditures decreased from $19.8 million to $12.8 million between 2008 and 2010, while property tax expenditures on adult detention in the Sheriff’s budget decreased from $101 million to $97 million during the same period.
The Research Brief explains that there are several competing points of view among law enforcement officials and others as to why the steep declines in detainee populations are occurring and whether they are desirable from a public safety perspective. Because of these competing views and a lack of available data to determine who is correct, the report recommends a series of actions by elected and justice system officials to step up data collection efforts and solicit informed discussion.

In particular, this is the type of issue that should be carefully deliberated by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. In a 2010 report on the county's governance structure, the Forum observed that other county boards tend to place "greater focus on nuts-and-bolts administrative strategies – how to more effectively reduce jail populations, process individuals through the courts, achieve higher bond ratings, fill potholes – and less on ideological debate."

The decline in detention populations, therefore, not only gives supervisors a great opportunity to save money, but also to undertake the type of rigorous policy oversight that ought to be a norm at committee meetings and budget hearings.

The Research Brief - which was made possible by grant funding from the Helen Bader Foundation - can be accessed here, and our media release here.

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