Dane County Supervisor Dana Pellebon (District 33) says that on any given day, 1.4% of the Black people in Dane County will be incarcerated.
“That’s a staggering amount. That’s a staggering number. Especially considering we only make up 9% of the population here,” she says.
Pellebon is a member of Dane County Board’s Black Caucus that unveiled a plan on Tuesday calling for reforms throughout the criminal justice system that will lessen the “severe racial disparities” that exist in Dane County and fix a funding gap for Dane County’s long-stalled jail consolidation project.
“There is an old adage that “If you build it, we will fill it.’ We have shown that to be true, because we have not enacted enough criminal justice reform to make a dent in our racial disparities in Dane County,” Pellebon tells Madison365. “In fact, the disparity numbers are increasing and that is unacceptable.
“These disparity numbers are unacceptable for a community that continually states that they are for equity, justice, inclusion, all of the things that Madison likes to be known for,” Pellebon adds. “And when we hit the number one [place to live] list across this nation, that number one list also includes racial disparities. Is that the number one list that we want to be on?”
Pellebon says that the plan, if adopted, would allow progress to resume on the largest public works project in Dane County’s history.
The reforms throughout the criminal justice system, according to a press release from the Black Caucus, include implementing weekend court, addressing disparities in how cash bail is utilized, eliminating the practice of arresting victims of crime when they report, limiting the length of probation holds, and finding alternatives for youthful offenders. Their plan also includes extensive reporting on who ends up in jail, why, and for how long. These reports, they say, would foster transparency and allow the county to identify additional opportunities for improvement over time.
“These are all actions that have been tried successfully in other parts of the country,” Pellebon says.
The project aims to replace existing jail cells in the City-County Building, which are widely considered outdated and inhumane. Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett announced on Tuesday that he would begin closing the portion of the Dane County Jail at the City-County Building and begin shipping residents to other county jails.
After being approved by the County Board in March of this year, progress on the project was stalled because of projected cost overages.
“This has been something that has been a concern since we heard about the additional $10 million ask,” Pellebon says. “And then, from there, we started looking at all of the documents and all of the reports and we knew that we needed to come up with something different that has some concentrated criminal justice reforms and also lowering the bed count.
“What we find most striking is that we have consultants that we have paid, specifically the JFA Institute, that has said very clearly that there are things that need to happen and reforms that can happen that will reduce your jail population,” Pellebon says. “I want it noted that Dane County has severe racial disparities and is currently jailing Black people at more than double the current rates of racial disparity across the nation.”
The jail facility in the new plan would be smaller than called for in previous plans, the Black Caucus says in a news release, and a smaller facility would bring the project back on budget and cost less to operate once opened. Data indicate that if disparities are reduced, a smaller jail will meet the county’s needs for years to come.
“So, for us, it is not just we need to build a smaller jail, but we need to enact very specific criminal justice reforms to combat what is happening,” Pellebon says. “And one of the things that that was striking for me during the JFA presentation was the assertion that by keeping a jail at 825 beds by building this jail, that what we are saying to the community is that we are committed to these racial disparities for the next 30 years.”
Along with Pellebon, the Black Caucus also includes District 15 Supervisor April Kigeya, District 14 Supervisor Anthony Gray, and ally Jacob Wright, who is the supervisor for District 17. Kigeya said in a statement that with the money saved through operating a smaller jail, “community services could be properly funded and expanded. This would further reduce the demand for jail beds, because people’s needs would be met.”
Pellebon says that next the proposal will move through committees and once it moves through those committees it can come before the county board to vote on.
“Now is the time for action and we believe that we have given a valid plan for action,” she says.