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Data reveals a county jail burdened by drug charges

Danielle Danford | Staff writer
Washburn County courthouse in Shell Lake. Photo by Danielle Danford

WASHBURN COUNTY—Hundreds of people in Washburn County are struggling with substance abuse and the criminal penalties tied to it. Eight years of data from the Washburn County jail and Washburn County circuit court show that the number of people incarcerated in the Washburn County jail is increasing and, at the same time, the number of criminal cases opened in Washburn County Court have increased, with drug possession cases showing the only significant increase among them.

In 2011 the Washburn County jail had 596 people booked in that year. For the next six years that figure increased to the all-time high of 875 people in 2016.


The Washburn County jail holds a maximum of 30 people, but its occupancy is based on 80 percent of its capacity to allow for new bookings. Those incarcerated in the jail are booked on new charges, probation holds, or warrants.

For the years covered in this report the jail did not have data that showed what specific charges people were incarcerated for in the jail. To get some idea of what charges could be leading to the increase of those incarcerated in the jail the Register turned to county circuit court records.

Eight years of county circuit court records show the number of criminal cases opened has significantly increased, with drug possession cases showing the most substantial increase. In 2011 Washburn County court had 28 drug possession cases opened, which doubled year over year for the next six years reaching 145 drug possession cases opened in 2017.



Eugene Harrington, Washburn County circuit court judge, believes that increased drug charges being behind the increased jail incarceration is due to better law enforcement training and better investigative techniques. He also believes the community is supportive of law enforcement in that they are reporting unusual behavior or what appears to be drug induced behavior.

In sentencing a person charged with drug possession Harrington assesses the degree of their substance abuse. They are placed on probation with a condition that the Department of Corrections treat their substance abuse and supervise their behavior after the treatment.

"I think that’s where society ought to be moving,” said Harrington.


Dennis Stuart, Washburn County Sheriff, believes that peoples’ mental health is behind some of the increase in drug charges, but that the culture around drugs and how society views them has changed. Locally, the city of Eau Claire recently passed a city ordinance making Marijuana possession of less than two ounces a city forfeiture, not a crime.

"I think part of the problem is society, as a whole, we’ve become a prescription world. Prescription drugs are all over and they are easily attainable,” he said. Stuart believes prescription drugs are the number one abused drug in the county.


Terry Dryden, the former county sheriff of 28 years, believes that about 80 percent of the people incarcerated in the county jail has something to do with illegal use of drugs, selling drugs, abuse of drugs or opioids or the abuse of alcohol. Local law enforcement report that drug use also drives other criminal acts that people end up incarcerated for like burglaries, theft, domestic abuse, and sexual assaults.

"Even though we have one charge of sexual or domestic abuse against somebody, generally speaking in almost 99 percent of the cases alcohol and drugs are part of that offense and that’s what drives our inmate population,” said Dryden.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that at least half to two-thirds of the countries jail population has a drug abuse or dependence problem.


Steven Schreiber, a clinical substance abuse and rehabilitation counselor with Aurora Community Services, told the LeaderRegister that the behavioral health field finds treatment more effective then incarceration.

"If incarceration worked as a change agent, we would not be having this dialogue,” said Schreiber, who has over twenty years’ experience in the field of behavioral health and in all levels of substance abuse care.


2017 was a significant year for the Washburn County jail, as 812 people were booked in and its average daily population reached its peak. In 2018 the jail’s average daily population reached the highest in eight years at 42 people.



"Any time you impose a cash bail that is going to increase these numbers in pretrial confinement,” said Harrington. Cash bail can vary from $100 to $500. The cash component is increased every time a person reoffends, which can cause an increase in the jails average daily population.

Another factor that effects the number of days a person is in jail involves people with substance abuse, dependence or addiction. Harrington has observed that often their chances of success in treatment are greater if they have forced sobriety, or days in jail.

Schreiber concedes that incarceration for those with substance dependence or addiction may have a marginal benefit of gaining "dry time” or a period of forced abstinence. The University of Pennsylvania Medical School reports that abstinence for 11.5 to 24 months is required for the brain resume normal functioning in people with substance dependence or addiction.

"Historically we have treated a chronic and progress disease (addiction and dependence) with an acute care model of treatment, or, incarceration. That does not work,” said Schreiber. With the scientific advancements in neurobiology Schreiber believes we can continue to improve the outcomes of treatment, in the lives of individuals and the overall health of communities.


Reflecting the increased average daily population, jail data shows that the number of people housed in other jails increased significantly from 56 people in 2014 to 131 people in 2015. Two years later the number of people housed out of county reached 199 people, a nine-year high.



When out of county, Washburn County inmates are held at Polk, Pierce, Chippewa, and Barron County jails. Washburn County will also start to hold inmates in Douglas County this year.

Stuart reports that housing an increasing number of people out of county is directly related to increased drug activity in the county.

The jail is also seeing an increase in the average length of stay for those incarcerated. Since 2014 the jails average time incarcerated has increased by about 9 days.



Harrington believes the increase in the average time a person is incarcerated in the jail is a combination of the increase in drugs, their abuse, and crime related to it.

Ryan Reid, an attorney at the Spooner Public Defender’s office, tells the LeaderRegister that even when the judge imposes a low cash bond like $50 sometimes his clients still can’t post to get out of jail.

"It may be a low-level misdemeanor or a low-level felony but they’re still sitting in jail because they are truly indigent, or they are truly poor. They really can’t afford even $50 to get out of jail,” said Reid, who represents clients in three counties. About 13 percent of Washburn County residents live below the federal poverty level. The government estimates that Washburn County has about 15,911 residents.



Federal data shows that nearly 35,000 people from Wisconsin are behind bars today, with about 12,150 people incarcerated in local jails. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has an annual budget of approximately $1.2 billion, the majority that goes to fund adult correctional institutions in the state.

Dennis Stuart, Washburn County Sheriff, tells the LeaderRegister that a lot of money is spent on incarcerating people locally. The cost of operating the Washburn County jail has increased more in the last four years than the previous four. County budget documents show that from 2011 to 2014 the jail’s expenses were relatively level at around $1.6 million a year. But in 2015 the jails expenses started to increase reaching $1.99 million in 2018.

The jail is largely supported by county property tax revenue. In 2018 about 94 percent of the jails revenue came from county property taxes, the other six percent came from revenue from costs associated with inmates using the phone, inmates on electric monitor, restitution, and huber.

The Washburn County Sheriff’s Office reports that cost of housing one inmate for 24 hours in the county jail is about$144.90. While the estimate cost for housing an inmate out of county, per day, is between $42 and $45. The sheriff’s department reports increased fuel and overtime costs associated with housing inmates in other counties due to transporting inmates to another facility and bringing them to Washburn County for court dates.

Stuart reports that drug cases take up the most time for sheriff deputies. The sheriff’s office has a dedicated drug investigator who, according to Stuart, works non-stop on drug involved crimes.

The sheriff’s department has a K-9 unit with one dog trained in locating illegal drugs. But Stuart says that more needs to be done to remove illegal drugs in Washburn County.

"We need to do more in our agency to increase the enforcement of drug activity. It’s unbelievable the amount of drugs that are out there,” said Stuart. The sheriff is looking to add another investigator and deputy to the department in 2020. Stuart acknowledges the additional staff could increase the load on the jail and court system with a potential of increased arrests from them.

"That’s why we need a bigger jail, we don’t have room to house these people,” said Stuart. Building another larger county jail has been mentioned at some county meetings over the past year. Most recently the county’s law enforcement committee discussed the pros and cons of building a new jail at its June meeting.

Stuart acknowledged that building a new jail would have a financial impact on the community but believes there isn’t another option. "We have a problem. We can’t house people, what do we do? It puts a fiscal impact on our community,” said Stuart.



Current programs

Washburn County has six jail diversion programs in operation; marijuana awareness program, domestic abuse intervention program, intoxicated driver intervention program, electronic monitoring program, drug court, community service, and the transitions house.

Each of these are voluntary programs that provide more support than incarceration alone. The drug court was developed to reduce substance abuse and criminal behavior in order to improve the lives of offenders, families and the community. Drug court provides court supervision and drug treatment while holding offenders accountable for criminal behavior.

The number of people that graduate the program varies as it comes down to the person in the program. Some people get terminated from the program due to use of drugs or for getting into trouble-like reoffending criminally.

In 2016 two people graduated the program, 2017 had four graduates. As of January 2018, five people were in the program.

These programs are alternatives to jail and Harrington pointed out that these programs are still getting worked on each year to improve outcomes for those participating in them. The programs in place need time to work according to him.

"I think we are going to have more in jail, statistics are going to increase, how long that’s going to take I don’t know. I am encouraged about where that’s going but I think there are still a lot of things that need to be ironed out so that the services are there for the person that needs the service,” said Harrington.


Other options

The National Sheriffs’ Association has issued a best-practices guide to jail-based medication-assisted treatment, in conjunction with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. The guide, Jail-Based Medication-Assisted Treatment: Promising Practices, Guidelines, and Resources for the Field was developed to guide jails in developing MAT programs.

Evidence strongly supports that the use of MAT increases the likelihood of successful treatment for individuals with opioid use disorders while reducing illness and death. Research has begun to show that adding MAT to the treatment of those involved in the criminal justice system reduces recidivism and are associated with reduced system costs.

Despite the increasing evidence and formal support from many prominent public health and public safety organizations, substance use treatment providers from both inside and outside of the criminal justice system have been slow to add MAT to their jail. However, nearly 200 jails nationwide are known to provide at least limited MAT, like MAT for pregnant women.

A jail-based MAT program is only the beginning as several successful jail programs collaborate with treatment and support services in their community to ensure what treatment has started in jail continues upon release.

However, jails cannot replace community based healthcare services. Reducing the number of people incarcerated with substance abuse and behavioral health needs is reliant on the development and funding of community services to treat these conditions. Until these services exist jails, like Washburn County, will continue to be a community safety net for people with these needs.




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