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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Jail emerges as primary issue-sort of
Sheriff rivals back a new one, but also seek alternatives
Mahoney Lowery
Mahoney Lowery

To build or not to build, that's not the question. Both Democrats in the Sept. 12 primary for Dane County sheriff agree a new jail is needed, as does Republican candidate Mike Hanson. The question is what else the county should do to manage its burgeoning inmate population.

Dave Mahoney, 47, a veteran detective and former head of the deputies union, calls a new jail "an inevitability." He cites a National Institute of Corrections study that predicts Dane County's inmate population will double in about 15 years. "We need to build a new institution."

The other Dem is Robbie Lowery, 51, who works for the state Justice Department. Like Mahoney, he deplores the nearly $2 million a year Dane County spends to ship inmates to other counties. But he hopes to delay building a new jail. "Why start with the idea that we're going to build a jail?" he asks. "Let's start with other ideas first."

Both Lowery and Mahoney want the county to spend more on alternative programs to treat inmates' underlying problems.

"We need to address why we're filling the jail," says Mahoney. "Many inmates don't have a basic high school education or job skills." And many, he says, are committing petty crimes to feed drug habits. "Treatment is a better solution than incarceration."

Dane County is now planning to build a new Huber Center, which would house 448 inmates. It would include 96 beds for those with mental health problems and another 96 for those with drug or alcohol addictions. County Executive Kathleen Falk says the new center will solve Dane County's jail problem, but neither Mahoney nor Lowery agree.

"I think we need both," says Mahoney, noting that when Dane County opens the new Huber Center, it will close the old facility, which currently houses about 200. The new center, he says, doesn't add enough beds.

Retiring Sheriff Gary Hamblin recently blasted a proposed audit of the county's jail needs as a stall tactic. Mahoney is also reluctant to endorse the idea, saying the National Institute of Corrections has already corroborated "what we've been saying about not having adequate staff or adequate housing."

Lowery, meanwhile, notes that the county did a similar study in 2004. But he thinks an audit is a good idea. "It's important to be properly armed with good information," he says. "That's good management."

In terms of the race as a whole, Lowery stresses his management experience. He oversees the Justice Department's Division of Criminal Investigation, which has a $13 million annual budget. (The sheriff's budget is about $53 million.) As for Mahoney, he wonders, "Why hasn't a sheriff along the way felt that Dave Mahoney should be a sergeant or lieutenant? Why hasn't he been promoted?"

Mahoney counters that he's held management positions in his role with the deputies union, including working with the County Board on the office's budget. He says Lowery is "trying to divert attention from the fact that I have 26 years' experience."

Clerks too

It's strange that Dane County clerk of courts is a partisan elective office, since the job is mainly administrative. But both of the Democrats contending for the open position (there is no Republican in the race) have found ways to make the contest interesting.

Carlo Esqueda, who works in information systems with the Madison Police Department, wants to upgrade technology to reduce the amount of paper in the office. He says many court filings could be turned into digital images. "At the police department, we have that system already in place."

Meanwhile, Bob Syring, a Dane County social worker who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent clerk Judy Coleman in 2004, sees the job as "both an advocacy and an administrative position." He's troubled that, since the new courthouse was built, teenagers are transported from the juvenile detention center in the City-County Building to the courthouse in chains. "I'd like to work with judges to arrange some court space at the City-County Building so we wouldn't have to move kids back and forth."

Both Syring and Esqueda want Dane County juries to include more minorities. "It's really uncomfortable for people going to court to not see any folks reflective of them," says Syring. Esqueda wonders if the jury pool could be expanded by accessing utility or phone records, not just records from the Division of Motor Vehicles. "I want to look at more options," he says.

Syring is backed by several Dane County supervisors, including Chair Scott McDonell. Esqueda, who worked in the clerk's office from 1993 to 1997, is backed by Coleman.

The problem with Section 8

County Supv. Ashok Kumar's proposal to prohibit landlords from rejecting tenants solely because they get Section 8, a form of federal housing assistance, sounds like something the Dane County Housing Authority and Madison's Community Development Authority would support. So why do the heads of both groups oppose it?

"I think we have landlord participation already," says Carolyn Parham, director of the county's program. "If you dropped 100 vouchers on us, the majority of people would be able to find housing." But the Section 8 waiting list has been closed since 2003 because of a lack of federal funds. "That's the crisis," says Parham. "The families that need it, the funding is not there for them."

And Stuart Levitan, chair of Madison's CDA, challenges Kumar's assertion that some landlords reject Section 8 tenants because of race.

"To call it discrimination is to say there's no business rationale for not wanting to enter into a contract with the federal government," he says, noting that landlords dislike the paperwork and fear the program will run out of money, leaving them with tenants who can't pay.

Kumar insists that race plays a role. "There's a lot of factors that go into it, and race is one of them." And while many tenants eventually find housing, "Ask a Section 8 recipient how long it takes. Ask them what kind of neighborhood they have to live in." If accepting Section 8 were mandatory, recipients could live anywhere.

And Kumar notes that other states, including Minnesota, have similar laws. "It's not like some revolutionary idea by Dane County liberals."

Call the cops

While King Street's late-night rowdiness is hogging all the media attention and sending more police patrols downtown, the folks on Allied Drive are struggling to address similar problems. Three times this summer, the police broke up mobs of 20-80 people.

"It's brought on by a lack of outlets for young people," says Freddie Clark, a member of Allied Drive's neighborhood association. "They're idle. There's no recreation out here. As a result, we have these spats."

Worried that the street fighting will escalate, Clark and other neighborhood advocates are organizing a peace rally for Sept. 2 at the new Boys and Girls Club, 4619 Jenewein Dr. "Safety, crime, unemployment ' all these issues will be highlighted at the rally," says Clark. "We want to bring them to public attention."

Meanwhile, he says the police need to be more visible on Allied Drive. "The feuds are continuing because no one is doing anything to stop it," he says. "If we had the same kind of attention as they have in the downtown area, it would work on Allied Drive, too."

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