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Accountability at center of new St. Croix County jail facility, officials say

St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Dan VanSomeren explains to Community Justice Coordinating Council members the functions of a kiosk for alcohol breath-testing that will be used in the jail’s new day reporting center. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Mike Longaecker)

HUDSON — John Shilts said a misconception existed among some in the St. Croix County criminal justice system.

Local judges, he learned, were under the assumption that people out on bond were being actively checked on by law enforcement to ensure they were abiding their release conditions.

"The fact," said Shilts, St. Croix County's sheriff, "was they are not actively checked on."

That revelation set into motion a project that threw open its doors Monday, March 13: the St. Croix County day reporting center.

The unit, a small facility attached to the jail, provides a space for people who are on bond to perform tests to ensure absolute-sobriety conditions of their release, among other things.

Whereas sheriff's deputies in the past had only checked on people after receiving a complaint, the new reporting center brings those people to the deputies.

St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Needham said the revelation that people out on bond wasn't so much a surprise as "an education."

"We thought that that was something law enforcement routinely did," he said.

And now that will be the case.

Shilts said the center allows deputies stationed there to receive immediate test results — and allows them to take swift action when those results don't come back clean. In fact, the sheriff said the facility is uniquely responsive, in that dirty test results allow officers to issue an arrest or report the violation to judges, probation agents or a diversion coordinator.

"I am not aware of another facility in Wisconsin, or anywhere for that matter, that is like our center," Shilts said. "Ours is unique in that law enforcement is able to deal instantly with violations."

Until now, the jail's booking area — the checkpoint through which arrested suspects enter and are later released — was the sole gathering place for anyone who needed to provide a urine, breath or DNA sample. People who needed their fingerprints taken also had to wait in the jail's booking area.

The new facility allows the booking area "to be much more accurate, fluid, and would have fewer distractions during the booking and releasing of inmates," according to the day reporting center's business plan, authored by sheriff's Capt. Dan VanSomeren.

The day reporting center came with a $309,256 price tag. VanSomerent said the total cost was just under $500,000 when staffing and equipment were added in.

Public in mind

While the average citizen likely won't come in contact with the facility, Shilts said it represents an investment in public safety and accountability.

"With the actual monitoring of participants, we are providing a level of oversight which has never before been provided for in this county," he said. "This translates to added safety measures for the public."

Just having the facility in place has a direct impact on people who will self-correct the behaviors that ran them afoul of the law in the first place, the sheriff said.

"That, in turn, allows us to spend less resources on the self-correctors and concentrate on those who pose more of a risk to reoffend," Shilts said.

VanSomeren shepherded the project over the past two years, which he said meant extensive discussions throughout the St. Croix County criminal justice system and multiple boards.

It wasn't an easy hill to climb. VanSomeren said the day reporting center project failed its first pass through the county's budgeting process before being OK'd in February 2016.

Shilts said the project encountered resistance from some members of the public defender's office who saw it as a means to "throw their clients back in jail with even more charges," like bail jumping and others stemming from violations. That's possible, but Shilts said those "self correctors" who follow the rules could be rewarded by judges for their behavior with lighter sentences.

Public defense attorney Alex Andrea has been among the most vocal critics of the project. He remains opposed to the project, saying the requirements it places on defendants are onerous and punitive.

"This is a regimen that is oppressive and is going to be designed to punish people even before they're convicted," Andrea said. "If we had more reasonable conditions, you don't need the day reporting center."

Needham said the prospect of additional bail jumping charges was not a consideration or factor in developing the concept of the day reporting center. He acknowledged critics' concerns, but said there's a simple way to avoid problems stemming from violations.

"If they comply with the conditions of their bond, we don't have an issue," the judge said.

In the past, there was a false sense of security that people were compliant, Needham said. He said the reporting center solves that problem.

In fact, it might not increase the number of bail-jumping crimes at all, Needham said. If all goes according to plan, he said the center will represent a deterrent for people who might consider violating their release conditions.

"It should promote public safety overall, the well-being of the defendant," along with providing a regular place for people on bond to verify their addresses and employment, the judge said.

He said all four St. Croix County judges support the reporting center.

Needham said he expects county officials to evaluate the reporting center's progress about three months from now.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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