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Dane County Black Caucus refutes statements made by Sheriff Barrett over jail consolidation project

Dane County Black Caucus, along with Dane County Supervisors, at today's press conference.

The Dane County Board will vote tonight on whether to put a resolution to the voters on the county borrowing $13.5 million to close a funding gap for a six-story jail. Earlier this morning, members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors’ Black Caucus held a press conference at the City-County Building to talk about that vote on 2022-RES-278 and address what they felt were inaccuracies from Sheriff Kalvin Barrett’s Tuesday press conference ahead of the vote in support of the $13.5 million referendum.

 “The Dane County Black Caucus refutes the statements made by the current and former Dane County sheriffs on Jan. 17,” said Sup. Dana Pellebon, 33rd District, opening the press conference. “The jail consolidation project has been a long-standing issue of contention with the county board. Even through that turmoil, after much conversation and compromise, the county board came to an agreement in November of 2022 to build a five-story facility with assurances from the majority of the county board members to ensure continued funding of that facility. 

“Without warning or past precedent, the county executive vetoed that plan without providing additional funding to cover his actions,” she added. “This action alone stopped the continued development and construction of the jail consolidation project.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, Sheriff Barrett stood alongside former Dane County sheriffs Dave Mahoney, Gary Hamblin and Rick Raemisch as they discussed their past experiences in pushing for a vote in favor of a referendum that would put the jail consolidation project into the public’s hands. The sheriffs noted that the current jail, built in the ’50s, was outdated, dangerous, and crowded.

“The Dane County Board has failed to put the safety of everyone in the Dane
County Jail as their top priority,” said Barrett in a statement on Tuesday. “Certain members of the Board have shown a lack of empathy and comprehension of the research and evidence leading to intentional delay tactics that places lives at risk and is
irresponsible with taxpayer’s dollars. Their lack of action and delays, as elected
officials, forces us to move forward with a referendum. I have faith the people of
Dane County will vote in support of humanity and better treatment for one of our
most vulnerable populations.”

Sup. Anthony Gray, 14th District, who is also a member of the Black Caucus, said he was “appalled” by that press conference.

 “Sheriff Barrett stood on stage with three white men and in the finest tradition of Willie Lynch, attacked the integrity, the competence and the fundamental intellect of his colleagues on the Dane County Board,” James said. “That kind of salvo cannot go unanswered. It is the antithesis of the way to make progress on a kind of tentative issue that has bedeviled the county for almost three decades.” 

Pellebon said that the Black Caucus knows there are differing views on ways to move forward.

“In those differing views, we urge elected officials to not resort to questioning each other’s integrity, intelligence or compassion,” she said. “Being divisive and dishonest does not make for a good working relationship. Dane County is invested in reforms that will reduce disparities and incarceration. We must allow these reforms to be fully implemented to show results like what we have seen in cities across the United States. 

“These important programs, coupled with investing in human services and housing, is the answer. A larger jail facility is not. There is will to build a facility that is the right size for our county. There is space in that proposed facility to house the residents in our custody. Any existing staffing issues that have caused the sheriff to house Dane County residents outside of our county would also be mitigated with the right size facility.”

Pellebon was asked to further explain some of Sheriff Barrett’s inaccuracies.

“The main inaccuracies are that there was not a plan that was put forward and that there was not something that was approved and that this could not have moved forward,” Pellebon explained. “It did not move forward because the plan that was approved, that was under budget, was vetoed by the county executive. So to say that we did not come up with a plan isn’t accurate. We did not come up with a plan that was that he agreed with and that is the distinct difference.

“However, our job on the county board is to make these determinations and to approve the budget for them and we did that in the November 2022 budget. And again, without precedent, the county executive vetoed that one line item in a county budget that we are all very, very proud of. That does include the reforms … that does include more money for housing. That does include the full package of what is needed to reduce the racial disparities in incarceration here in Dane County.

“The other inaccuracy,” Pellebon added, “is that I can comprehend research.”

The referendum must be approved tonight in order to get on the ballot in April’s election.

“I don’t know how the vote is going to come out tonight and I think anyone who pretends to know is overstepping,” James said. “Having said that, regardless of how it comes out, we will continue to advocate for a right-size jail plan. There is no question that we need to get rid of the inhumane and outdated facilities that currently exist. For all of the reasons that many of you have already heard, the question is whether or not overbuilding a jail is the right answer to those to that dilemma. 

“JFA is a consulting company that the county hired to advise us on the best path forward for criminal justice reform. I don’t need to tell most of you that Dane County has the ubiquitous distinction of having the single worst racial disparities of any county in the nation,” he continued. “More than double the national average. And JFA has suggested to us that if we overbuild this jail, not only are we leaving a massive pile of worthy projects that will not get funded, but we will be functionally locking in these terrible racial disparities for the next 30-plus years. For the members of the Black Caucus, and obviously many others, that is flatly an unacceptable proposition.”