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Pandemic Causes Jail, Prison Population Drop in Wisconsin; Will It Stick?


After the pandemic began, the Vilas County Jail was noticeably emptier than usual.

The court system was setting more signature bonds for accused criminals, bypassing cash bonds that might have forced people to sit in jail.

The sheriff’s office was trying new methods to keep people out of jail, too.

“We’re still getting people sentenced to jail, but what we did for some of the nonviolent offenders that were maybe just property crimes or such, we started utilizing electronic monitoring quite a bit more than we traditionally have,” said Vilas County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Patrick Schmidt.

That trend was common to jails and prisons across the state.

A Wisconsin Policy Forum study showed, at one point during the pandemic, county jail populations were down 35 percent.

State prison populations fell 16 percent, reaching their lowest point in 20 years.

“It’s just interesting to see how quickly this change came about, especially given how stable, for how long, the populations were going back multiple decades,” said researcher Ari Brown.

Per-capita spending on corrections in Wisconsin is five times higher than it was in 1977.

But with a lower number of people incarcerated, Brown said counties and the state are spending less on corrections than a year ago. They’ll have to decide whether that’s a good tradeoff.

“I think it’s going to provide the State of Wisconsin and all of these counties who have inmate populations, it’s going to provide them the opportunity to say, do we want to make this change permanent? Is that of benefit to us? If it is, is there somewhere that we want to redirect the dollars that are going towards corrections?” Brown said.

One consideration might be the fact that the crime rate increased during the pandemic.

But Brown says researchers don’t know whether that’s connected to fewer people in jail and prison.

“It’s unclear right now,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have the data in the coming years to figure out exactly what was going on. But I think right now, it’s just too early to know exactly what’s happening.”

Vilas County keeps analyzing what its post-pandemic jail framework will look like.

Schmidt said some of the changes might stick around.

“It’s hard to say that things will go back. I don’t know that anything will go back to the way we knew it before,” said Schmidt. “We may have learned a thing or two when we didn’t even mean to change things.”

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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