Wisconsin Jail Population Rising
Rise attributed to opioid epidemic and state bail laws.
More people are being locked up in Wisconsin, and the increase in inmates in county jails and state prisons is costing taxpayers and straining capacity of corrections facilities in some places.
After falling for five years, the number of people incarcerated in Wisconsin started to rise in 2015. A new WPR analysis of state data shows increases since 2015 in both the number of inmates and the percentage of jail capacity that’s being used throughout the state.
That rise has consequences.
The trends identified by WPR are based on jail population data from 2010 through June 2019, the most recent state data available. WPR obtained the numbers through open records requests of the state Department of Corrections.
In 2010, Wisconsin’s county jails incarcerated an average of 13,600 people each month. By 2015, that number had dropped to 12,300. That was followed by three years of increases — 12,700 inmates in 2016; 13,100 in 2017; and 13,400 in 2018. Partial data from 2019 show a decline in jail populations in the first half of last year — but population levels remained well above 2015’s low-population marks.
“We’ve had quite a few challenges in the last two to three years,” said Paul Brinkman, the corrections administrator in Sheboygan County. “We’re forced to make decisions about inmate housing and place them in parts of the building that normally wouldn’t be designed for that classification of inmate.”
It’s not clear what caused the declines in inmate populations in the first half of the 2010s, but most experts attribute the rise that followed to the opiate epidemic and a more recent surge in methamphetamine use.
Wisconsin State Crime Lab data show a jump in heroin cases from about 650 in 2012 to more than 1,000 in 2013, and a rise to a high of nearly 1,350 cases statewide in 2017. Meth cases jumped from about 1,150 in 2016 to nearly 1,700 in 2017. Then meth cases fell to about 1,450 in 2018.
Sheboygan County Sheriff Cory Roeseler said the county saw signs it was outgrowing its detention facility in 2009. Then years of declines took some pressure off Sheboygan County. In recent years, that pressure has returned.
Sheboygan County hovered around 60 to 70 percent capacity in its corrections facilities. But in 2018, on average, the county was at 102 percent capacity, according to WPR’s analysis. Between two detention facilities, Sheboygan County has capacity to hold 402 inmates at a time, Roeseler said. That population fluctuates significantly. Roeseler and Brinkman said the facilities are likeliest to hit or exceed capacity during the summer and on weekends.
“Right now if we’re overcrowded, where are we going to put anybody that’s on an additional 12-hour hold?” Roeseler said, referring to the order that a judge can make if an offender is found to have violated probation.
In some places where jail crowding is acute, that’s made it more likely that the counties have to pay to house inmates in other jails. In 2015, the statewide average was 422 inmates per month housed outside of their home counties. By 2018, the average number was 506. That costs counties money in boarding costs and time in transportation.
The fiscal impact of rising incarceration numbers is one reason the issue has at times attracted coalitions of liberal and conservative politicians. Advocates for criminal justice reform include interest groups as disparate as the Charles Koch Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union. They point to research showing those held in jails and prisons are more likely to reoffend than those who complete alternative programs such as drug courts. In Wisconsin, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has championed his own Joseph Project, which aims to help those who have been incarcerated to find jobs and re-enter society.
But when it comes to state criminal justice policy, there is little sign of political agreement among Wisconsin policymakers. Without a change of course, the state may see a continuing long-term trend toward more and more expensive incarceration.
Opiates, Other Drugs Account For Share Of Inmate Increases
There are many reasons for the increase in Wisconsin’s incarcerated population, but the state’s drug epidemic is one of the major ones. Jails across the state have become used to dealing with people who are facing withdrawals from opiates, or the lingering effects of methamphetamines.
Oneida County Sheriff Grady Hartman said it’s become the norm.
“Four or five years ago, I never thought our community up here in the Northwoods would have a lot of methamphetamine or heroin use,” Hartman said. “I never thought we would have overdose deaths.”
But all those things came to Oneida County.
On a recent tour of the jail, a man who had just been booked there was in restraints as he came down from drugs he’d been using when he was arrested. The tour didn’t pass directly by where the man was being held, but several times he could be heard shouting.
All jails have to respond to inmates’ health and medical needs. Dealing with the effects of substance abuse is one of the biggest tasks in jail intake procedures throughout the state. And it’s not just illegal substances that pose a risk.
“We have a couple people in there right now going through DTs really bad,” said Mark Neuman, the Oneida County jail administrator, referring to delirium tremens, an effect of alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms can include shaking, confusion and even hallucinations. “Actually one guy is in the hospital. When he comes back, we’ll have to have certain things we’ll have to do for him, give him certain kinds of liquids and things to try to bring him back.”
While Other Midwestern States’ Prison Populations Declined, Wisconsin’s Increased
Every week, members of the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office make the four-hour round-trip drive to Stanley to exchange inmates with the state. The Stanley Correctional Institution houses about 1,600 state prisoners. It’s in central Wisconsin, about an hour south and an hour west of Northwoods Rhinelander, where the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office is situated.
Oneida County has seen the same population trends in its jail as other parts of Wisconsin, but it’s unusual in that its correctional facility has more capacity than the Northwoods county requires. It contracts with the state to take about 100 prisoners at a time. The Oneida County Jail has capacity for 203 inmates, and even with increases in local inmates in recent years it averages in the high 90s, Hartman said.
A 2019 analysis of state prison populations by the Legislative Audit Bureau showed the state’s adult prison inmate population increased by 7.9 percent between 2011 and 2018, from nearly 22,000 people to about 23,600.
“When compared with six other Midwestern states,” the report’s authors wrote, “only Wisconsin experienced an increase in its inmate population from 2009 to 2018.”
Rising populations also mean rising costs. The same report found the operating costs of the state’s adult prison system increased from $909 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to $934 million in 2017-18.
The increase in those incarcerated in prisons also leads to increased costs to the state as they make arrangements with counties, such as Oneida, to ease crowding by housing some state inmates. It’s a cost to the state, but in some ways it’s a windfall to Oneida County. The arrangement is worth about $1.2 million per year to Oneida County. The county does assume transportation, housing and health care costs for inmates. It puts the rest into its capital budget.
Gov. Tony Evers campaigned on a promise to cut the state’s prison population in half. That was always likely to be a difficult goal to reach, and there are few signs of significant structural changes in the governor’s first year in office.
Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, is one of a group of legislators who have focused on criminal justice reforms that aim to reverse increasing incarceration. He’s introduced a bill that would limit the use of bail jumping charges, which are used to incarcerate someone who’s violated a court order, for example drinking alcohol if a judge has ordered them not to as their case proceeds through the court system. In 2018, more than 8,000 cases involving felony bail jumping charges were filed in Wisconsin, making it one of the most common felony charges deliberated in courtrooms.
Crowley said even in cases where the original charges are dropped, bail jumping charges can remain.
“You may even be found not guilty,” Crowley said. “But because you were guilty of bail jumping, now you’re doing even more time than your original charge.”
Crowley’s proposal, which would still allow for penalties for offenders who don’t show up in court, has bipartisan support in the Legislature. It’s not clear that will be enough to get it a vote, however. The two parties appear to be far apart when it comes to criminal justice goals.
In an interview in early January with the Wisconsin State Journal, Evers outlined a package of legislation from Democratic lawmakers he characterized as a “first step” toward his goal of halving the state’s prison population. The day after that interview published, a group of Republican legislators announced a press conference for a set of bills that would in part increase penalties for domestic violence. The legislators call them their “new Tougher on Crime initiatives.”
Listen to the WPR report here.
Rising Inmate Population In Wisconsin Strains Local Jails was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.
More about the Opioid Crisis
- 21 Likely Drug Deaths In One Week - Alana Watson - Feb 26th, 2020
- County Had Record Overdose Deaths in 2019 - Edgar Mendez - Feb 12th, 2020
- Wisconsin Jail Population Rising - Rob Mentzer and Keegan Kyle - Jan 16th, 2020
- One Doctor’s Fight to Handle Opioid Crisis - Bram Sable-Smith - Jan 1st, 2020
- Milwaukee Medical Doctor and Clinic Office Manager Convicted of Unlawfully Distributing Opioids - U.S. Department of Justice - Dec 19th, 2019
- Justice Department Awards More Than $333 Million to Fight Opioid Crisis - U.S. Department of Justice - Dec 12th, 2019
- California Man Indicted on Fentanyl Distribution Charges - U.S. Department of Justice - Dec 11th, 2019
- City Hall: City Wins $700,000 For Drug Overdose Fight - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 6th, 2019
- Council approves hiring outside counsel to recover opioid epidemic costs - Ald. Michael Murphy - Oct 15th, 2019
- Oxycontin Maker Gave $65k to Marquette University - Rich Kremer - Oct 7th, 2019
- Wisconsin Not Settling With OxyContin Manufacturer - Brady Carlson - Oct 2nd, 2019
- Milwaukee Experiencing Unprecedented Number of Drug Overdoses - Isiah Holmes - Sep 25th, 2019
- Kaul Rejects Settlement with Oxycontin - Melanie Conklin - Sep 12th, 2019
- Opioid Settlement Could Aid County - Isiah Holmes - Sep 4th, 2019
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Announces Nearly $5.2 Million in Federal Funding to Reduce Opioid Overdoses in Wisconsin - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Sep 3rd, 2019
- Inside State’s First 24/7 Opioid Treatment Center - Isiah Holmes - Aug 29th, 2019
- Opioid Addiction Can Be Beaten, Experts Say - Isiah Holmes - Aug 15th, 2019
- State Health Agency’s New Data Tool Shows a Decline in the Number of Opioid Deaths in Wisconsin - Wisconsin Department of Health Services - Aug 14th, 2019
- DHS Takes Coordinated Approach to Dealing with Opioid Addiction - Brady Carlson - Aug 9th, 2019
- Why the Weekend of Fatal Overdoses? - Isiah Holmes - Jul 31st, 2019
- Wisconsin Is Awash in Opioids - Isiah Holmes - Jul 28th, 2019
- City May Sue Opioid Manufacturers - Alana Watson - Jul 26th, 2019
- Attorney General Kaul Files Lawsuit to Hold Purdue Pharma Accountable for Role in Opioid Crisis - State Rep. Gordon Hintz - May 16th, 2019
- AG Kaul Announces Wisconsin, Four Other States, File Lawsuits Against Purdue Pharma - Josh Kaul - May 16th, 2019
- Medicaid Expansion Would Help Opioid Addicts - Laurel White - May 9th, 2019
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Helps Reintroduce Legislation to Combat the Opioid and Substance Use Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - May 8th, 2019
- Kaul, AGs Warn of More Opioid Problems - Shamane Mills - Apr 2nd, 2019
- Bipartisan Coalition of AGs Express Concern Regarding HHS Pain Management Draft Report - Josh Kaul - Apr 1st, 2019
- Opioid Crisis Affecting State Businesses - Shamane Mills - Apr 1st, 2019
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin’s Bipartisan Work Recognized by National Organization - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Mar 28th, 2019
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Announces New Federal Funding To Help Wisconsin Combat the Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Mar 27th, 2019
- Three Hospitals Offer 40 Recovery Coaches - Mary Kate McCoy - Mar 22nd, 2019
- State Officials Meet to Tackle Drug Epidemic - Shamane Mills - Mar 18th, 2019
- The Enduring Allure of Opioids - Hayley Sperling - Feb 24th, 2019
- Hagedorn Campaign Releases First TV Ad: “Lily” - Brian Hagedorn - Feb 19th, 2019
- Opioid Prescriptions in State Down 29% - Shamane Mills - Feb 11th, 2019
- Have County Overdose Deaths Peaked? - Ximena Conde - Dec 31st, 2018
- Drug Task Force Seeks Community Input - Max Nawara - Dec 20th, 2018
- Ald. Tony Zielinski to Sponsor Legislation to Ensure Proper Coverage for City Employees Struggling with Addiction and Other Mental Health Problems - Ald. Tony Zielinski - Dec 17th, 2018
- Opioid Task Force Issues Recommendations - Ximena Conde - Dec 4th, 2018
- Final report released by Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force - Ald. Michael Murphy - Nov 30th, 2018
- 4th Dimension Recovery Center Opens to Address Opioid Epidemic in Wisconsin - 4th Dimension Recovery Center - Nov 12th, 2018
- Governor Walker Announces 32% Decrease in Opioid Prescriptions Since January 2015 - Gov. Scott Walker - Oct 31st, 2018
- #HopeActLiveWI: Wisconsin Awarded Nearly $3 Million to Combat Opioid Epidemic - Wisconsin Department of Health Services - Oct 10th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Announces More Than $20 Million Awarded to Wisconsin Communities to Fight the Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Sep 21st, 2018
- Senator Baldwin’s Reforms Pass Senate with Overwhelming Bipartisan Support - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Sep 18th, 2018
- Another Attorney General Not Named Brad Schimel Sues Opioid Manufacturer - One Wisconsin Now - Sep 15th, 2018
- Bipartisan Senate Opioids Response Legislation Includes Senator Baldwin’s Reforms - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Sep 12th, 2018
- The State of Politics: Counties Struggle With Opioid Costs - Steven Walters - Aug 20th, 2018
- Vipond Campaign: ‘Opioids: Clear & Present Danger’ in Race to Replace Sensenbrenner - Dr. Jennifer Hoppe Vipond - Aug 1st, 2018
- PDMP Report Shows Continued Decline in Controlled Substances Dispensed - Gov. Scott Walker - Jul 30th, 2018
- Illegal drugs are strangling the life out of our neighborhoods - Ald. Bob Donovan - Jul 19th, 2018
- Meth A Bigger Issue Than Opioids? - Shamane Mills - Jul 6th, 2018
- Sensenbrenner-Backed Legislation to Fight Synthetic Opioids Clears House - U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner - Jun 15th, 2018
- Community Engagement Session Hosted by Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force - Ald. Michael Murphy - Jun 4th, 2018
- Brad Schimel and Scott Walker Repeat Mistakes Past; Refuse to Take Legal Action Against Opioid Manufacturers - One Wisconsin Now - Jun 4th, 2018
- State Awards $2.4 Million For Opioid Treatment - Danielle Kaeding - Jun 2nd, 2018
- Campaign Cash: State Politicians Funded by Accused Drug Makers - Wisconsin Democracy Campaign - May 26th, 2018
- City-County Plan Targets Opioid Epidemic - Edgar Mendez - May 22nd, 2018
- Brad Schimel Election Ad Blames Families, Not His Pharmaceutical Donors for Opioid Crisis - One Wisconsin Now - May 17th, 2018
- Governor Walker Announces 10% Drop in Opioid Prescriptions Dispensed Over the Past Year - Gov. Scott Walker - May 16th, 2018
- Cocaine Overdose Deaths Have Nearly Tripled - Ximena Conde - May 15th, 2018
- Bryce Calls on Steil to To Reject Donations from Pharmaceutical Companies Fueling the Opioid Crisis - Randy Bryce - May 9th, 2018
- U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Bill Cassidy Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Halt the Flow of Illicit Fentanyl into the U.S. - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 24th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Joins Colleagues to Call on Administration to Take Immediate Action to Reduce Price of Life-Saving Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 20th, 2018
- Opioid Crisis: The House Where Addicts Die - Isiah Holmes - Apr 18th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Helps Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Address the Opioid Crisis - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 17th, 2018
- Op Ed: Stronger Action Needed on Opioid Crisis - Matt Flynn - Apr 14th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Helps Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Allow Safe Disposal of Unwanted Drugs in Hospice - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 13th, 2018
- Leah Attends Opioid Taskforce Meeting about Alternative Treatments to Pain - State Sen. Leah Vukmir - Apr 13th, 2018
- Walker Signs Vukmir Bill Battling Opioid Crisis - State Sen. Leah Vukmir - Apr 10th, 2018
- Combating the Opioid Crisis: Governor Walker Signs Bipartisan Bills on Opioids into Law - Gov. Scott Walker - Apr 9th, 2018
- Bipartisan Alternative Drug Treatment Program Signed Into Law - State Rep. Evan Goyke - Apr 3rd, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Hosts Roundtable with Green Bay Officials on Fighting the Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 2nd, 2018
- U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin, Todd Young and Edward Markey Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Fight Opioid-Related Infectious Diseases - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Mar 23rd, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Announces New Funding for Wisconsin to Combat the Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Mar 22nd, 2018
- Vukmir Battles Opioid Epidemic - State Sen. Leah Vukmir - Mar 20th, 2018
- Supervisor Peggy West: Time to Hold Drug Makers Accountable - Sup. Peggy A. West - Mar 14th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin to Health Insurers: Step Up Response to Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Mar 5th, 2018
- Latest Report Highlights 20 Percent Decrease in Opioid Prescriptions Dispensed from 2015 to 2017 - Gov. Scott Walker - Mar 2nd, 2018
- Tracking Opioid Deaths by ZIP Code - Isiah Holmes - Mar 1st, 2018
- Governor Walker Discusses the Opioid Epidemic at Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Conference - Gov. Scott Walker - Feb 5th, 2018
- Vukmir, Nygren Lead Efforts to Combat the Opioid Epidemic - State Sen. Leah Vukmir - Jan 19th, 2018
- Governor Walker Takes Additional Action to Fight Opioid Crisis - Gov. Scott Walker - Jan 19th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Calls on President Trump To Renew The Opioid Public Health Emergency - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Jan 12th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Calls on President Trump to Sign Bipartisan Legislation Passed by Congress to Help Halt Flow of Illicit Fentanyl into the United States - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Dec 22nd, 2017
- Drug-Related Deaths To Hit 420 in 2017 - Edgar Mendez - Dec 21st, 2017
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Joins Bipartisan Group of Senators Urging Congressional Leadership to Commit Resources to Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Dec 15th, 2017
- Murphy’s Law: Brad Schimel’s Opioid Problem - Bruce Murphy - Nov 14th, 2017
- Op Ed: State Leaves Counties to Sue Drug Companies - State Senators Janet Bewley and Dave Hansen - Nov 11th, 2017
- Special Report: Opioid Crisis Hits City Hard - Edgar Mendez - Nov 9th, 2017
- Opioid Crisis Still Growing - Dave Fidlin - Oct 30th, 2017
- Op Ed: Nygren, Sidener Dramatize Opioid Problem - Casey Hoff - Oct 18th, 2017
- Op Ed: The Heroin and Opioid Crisis Is Real - Isiah Holmes - Aug 28th, 2017
- The State of Politics: John Nygren’s War on Drug Abuse - Steven Walters - Jul 10th, 2017
- Op Ed: Opioid Crisis Demands Bipartisan Solutions - Jeff Plale - Feb 24th, 2017
- Governor Walker Announces Members of the Task Force on Opioid Abuse - Gov. Scott Walker - Oct 25th, 2016
- Prescription Drugs Lead Way to Heroin - Wyatt Massey - Mar 17th, 2016
- Heroin Deaths Up 241% Since 2010 - Wyatt Massey - Mar 16th, 2016