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Pierce jail insurance, space issues heard

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politics River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

The Pierce County Jail Ad Hoc Committee started its round of interviews Feb. 21 with those who deal directly with the jail on a firsthand basis.

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District Attorney Sean Froelich, Circuit Court Judge Joseph Boles and John Dirkse from Aegis/Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Company, and Corporation Counsel Brad Lawrence (in closed session) answered questions from the three-man committee over a three-hour session.

Froelich told the committee his biggest concern is structural, as inmates are transferred from the jail to court for hearings in the hall between the DA's offices. He added a nearby conference room which is used for victim interviews could be intimidating for them if an inmate walks by.

Committee Chair Rod Rommel, using the Pierce County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Needs Assessment report as a guide, asked Froelich about the relationship law enforcement has with the district attorney's office. Froelich said if law enforcement has an issue with his office, he wants to hear it from them.

"I encourage open communication, transparency," Froelich said, one of the key viewpoints he stressed during last year's election to win the position.

Rommel also asked about sentencing guidelines, wondering about the option of monetary fines versus jail time. Froelich said you have to treat each case individually and not under one umbrella because each case could have different factors.

Froelich said he wished for a physical space, classroom size, for an inmate to have sessions with a counselor/psychiatrist, so inmates can start getting the services they need.

However, a common theme which popped up in their last meeting, occurred again Thursday -- inmates who are in the jail hardly stay for the programs to take an effect.

Committee Member Jay Richardson said a study given to the committee was an average of six inmates stay for over 60 days.

Boles' session touched upon a variety of topics. He said a practice taught to him when he was elected judge in 2010 when it came to sentencing was the "Mad/Afraid of Him" theory.

In short, he explained, if you are afraid of him, put him away; if you are mad at him for being stupid, get him to change his behavior.

Boles believes Pierce County is in great shape due to the success of Drug and Veterans Courts. He also praised probation agents for the work they have done.

"I can tell you they are overworked," he said. "They do not have enough resources to get what they need."

Committee Member Mike Hunter asked Boles if the size of the jail is a factor when it comes to sentencing. Boles replied it isn't.

Besides the classroom previously mentioned, Boles would like to see more assessments about the defendant prior to sentencing. One such tool, he added, was the COMPAS, a research-based, risk and needs assessment tool to assist those in placement of offenders. He said the State of Wisconsin has been touting its benefits and the issue will be discussed during the next Pierce County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting.

Dirkse spoke about the Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Company and touted its advantages. Pierce County is one of 53 counties in the state which belong to the owned and operated company.

He said, currently the county is in outstanding shape when it comes to loss -- "nothing to note" -- he said, but he warned danger could loom at any second.

Dirkse told the story of Monroe County, who was in the same boat as Pierce County -- a jail the county had desperately outgrown but public sentiment was against building.

Monroe County had two jail suicides within a year span from 2008-2009, and Wisconsin Mutual had to pay a maximum of $13.1 million to a woman in another incident left with permanent brain damage who tried to kill herself while in jail custody. The jail, according to reports, had been repeatedly criticized in state inspection reports for its lack of suicide prevention efforts.

"Once in a while, we will have to step in front of the bus and take a hit," Dirkse said.

Those results and more caused Wisconsin Mutual to lower its policy for Monroe to $1 million. Riding a wave of sentiment against building, all Monroe supervisors were recalled except one in 2009.

Finally, it was reported last November, funding for a new $25 million justice center was approved.

Dirkse advised the committee Pierce's policy is currently $10 million and the coverage is for everything in the jail. He warned if the operating expense will go up, the county's insurance policy will go up as well.

Finally, he touted the pod system over the linear system Pierce has, due to easier supervision of inmates.

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