COVID-19 has threatened and harmed all of us and has also shown us that the most vulnerable people in our society are most at risk. Second, only to nursing homes, prisons and jails have become hotspots for COVID-19. Chicago’s Cook County Jail has seen 700 detained people become infected. Seven of those people and two guards have died. More recently and closer to home, the infected population at the Waupun Correctional Institution jumped by more than 200 people in less than a week. Jails and prisons are dangerous places for infection, particularly for the elderly, and for Black and Brown people. Immediate decarceration could stop further tragedy from happening.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and other authorities acted quickly between mid-March and mid-April to reduce the number of people in the Dane County Jail from 722 on March 15 to 441 on April 19, a nearly 40% reduction. COVID-19 has entered the jail but has not exploded in the same way that it did in Cook County and Waupun. Many people attribute this better outcome to the reductions in the jail population.
Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality, and Solidarity (MOSES) has long advocated for a significant reduction in the Dane County jail population, and it is encouraging to see the results of a motivated and coordinated response. A report analyzing data provided on the Sheriff’s web pages shows how this happened. While the rate of people leaving the jail from mid-March to mid-April was 18% higher than normal, it was the dramatic drop (69%) in the number entering that had the greatest impact.
The biggest drop (104 people) was in the numbers put into the jail by parole and probation agents. Working for the DOC’s Department of Community Supervision, these agents can have people under supervision incarcerated in jail if they are accused of breaking one of the rules of supervision, until an investigation has been concluded. People in this group have no opportunity for bail. Many have not committed a new crime, but have merely broken a rule such as not drinking or living in unapproved housing. As a response to the threat of COVID-19, the DOC instigated a new policy to avoid incarcerating people and instead to leave them in the community. Because most people under supervision are not a danger to the community, MOSES has long supported this policy, and we encourage the DOC to adopt it permanently.
The next largest drop in the jail population (88 people) was for people awaiting their initial hearing, who stay in jail if unable to pay bail. One policy that has facilitated this reduction is the ability of police to get court dates and then add those dates to a warrant, avoiding the necessity of taking people to the jail. This is another excellent policy that can be continued beyond the current crisis.
The third biggest drop (53 people) was among those awaiting trial. This is the largest group in the jail, standing at 194 people on March 15th, before still another policy change reduced it. Of course, some of the reduction resulted naturally from the drop in people awaiting initial appearances. For the rest, however, it was public defenders and defense attorneys preparing repeated applications to reduce or eliminate bail that allowed people to leave the DC Jail between their initial appearance and their trial.
Together, reductions in these three groups account for 245 of the 281 fewer people held in the jail by April 15th. MOSES believes that all of these policy changes should be made permanent as part of the systemic change being demanded by protesters around the country to address structural racism. MOSES and MUM also believe that even more people could and should be released from jail through even more efforts to reform the system.
Given the egregious racial disparities in its incarceration rates, Dane County must take not just temporary but permanent, visible steps to address racism through justice system reform.