How America’s Drug Problem Overwhelms Rural Jails

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Farm near Attica, Wisconsin. Photo by Davidwilson1949

What’s driving the rural jail crisis?

In Washburn County, in northwestern Wisconsin (population 15,911), a local news outlet took a close look at the data behind the rising number of incarcerated individuals—and came up with an answer that surprised few local authorities.

Substance abuse—and the drug possession charges associated with it.

The examination by the LeaderRegister newspaper of eight years of data from the Washburn County jail and Washburn County circuit court showed that during 2016, the county jail held a record number of 875 people, compared to 596 in 2011—a 60 percent increase.

In 2018 the jail’s average daily population reached its highest number in eight years at 42 people. The jail has a rated capacity of 30.

To get some idea of what charges could be leading to the increase of those incarcerated in the jail, the LeaderRegister turned to county circuit court records.


The majority of cases seen at the Washburn County courthouse in rural Wisconsin, pictured here, are related to drugs. Photo by Danielle Danford

Eight years of county circuit court records show drug possession cases were the primary drivers of the increase.  In 2011, Washburn County Court recorded 28 drug possession cases opened. That doubled year over year for the next six years reaching 145 drug possession cases opened in 2017.

Authorities argued that the only way to relieve the load is through treatment, diversion programs and close supervision after release to reduce recidivism.

“That’s where society ought to be moving,” said Washburn County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Harrington, who uses assessments of the severity of substance abuse to set conditions for probation, including supervision and treatment.

Much of the abuse is now connected with opioids. A recent ordinance in the city of Eau Claire, Wi., made marijuana possession of less than two ounces a city forfeiture, not a crime.

Washburn County Sheriff Dennis Stuart said the easy availability of prescription drugs has added to the pressure on the local justice system.

“We’ve become a prescription world,” he said. “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 are there because of 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 country’s 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 20 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 affects 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 to 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.

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,” said Reid. “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.

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 of which that goes to fund adult correctional institutions in the state.

Skyrocketing Costs

According to Sheriff Stuart the he 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, and restitution.

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.

And there’s no sign that the crisis will ease soon.

“We need to do more in our agency to increase the enforcement of drug activity,” said Stuart. “It’s unbelievable the amount of drugs that are out there.”

That leaves County authorities with some hard choices: build a new, bigger jail, or increase jail diversion programs—or some combination of both.

A local drug court provides court supervision and drug treatment while holding offenders accountable for criminal behavior.

The number of people who graduate the program varies. 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, he said.

“I am encouraged about (the alternatives), 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.

However, jails cannot replace community based healthcare services, authorities told the LeaderRegister.

Reducing the number of people incarcerated with substance abuse and behavioral health needs depends on the development and funding of community services to treat these conditions.

Until these services exist, jails, like Washburn County, will continue to be the community safety net for people with these needs.

Danielle Danford is a staff writer for the LeaderRegister, and a 2019 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged and slightly edited version of a story completed for her fellowship project that appeared in the LeaderRegister. The full version is available here

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