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A tale of three Lee's, and how they explain Marathon County's backlog | The Big Story
The answers aren't as simple as one might expect
I’m trying something a little new with this story. It’s not complete, but an ongoing investigation. An opening salvo, if you will. This is something I’ve been curious about exploring for a while. I get the jail log every morning, and I’ve been amazed how long some people are staying at Marathon County Jail. There are many reasons this is a problem, and regardless of your politics, you’ll likely find a reason to be concerned.
People often confuse the difference between jails and prisons. They’re used interchangeably and as someone who once exclusively covered criminal justice, it kind of drives me nuts. Kind of like when folks use burglary and robbery interchangeably. *
So what is that difference? Jail generally is for two groups of people: Those awaiting trial/court hearings, and those who have been sentenced to less than one year of imprisonment. They’re generally operated by counties and are designed to be in close proximity to their respective county courthouses.
Prisons, on the other hand, are operated by states (or the federal government, in the case of federal prison). So when you hear someone sentenced to five years imprisonment, this is where they’re going.
In Marathon County, that trend is changing thanks to court backlogs, a look at the data shows; and those backlogs are being exasperated by COVID-19, as the county went nearly a year without a trial and now is opening up only one branch for trials. On one particular day in April — April 13 to be exact — 25 prisoners at Marathon County Jail have been there for longer than one year. And that costs a lot of money.
The Wausonian examined the court records of several of the individuals in custody at Marathon County Jail the longest, sometimes for years. What follows is a tale of three Lee’s, and how each demonstrates an aspect of why some people are spending a really long time in jail.
Lee Franck is one. Franck held the current record for number of days in jail on the date we checked. As of April 13, he’d been in for 1,147 days. That’s more than three years.
Franck is currently facing charges for first-degree intentional homicide. That’s a weighty charge and not one that will move through the court system fast. (Unless a speedy trial is requested by the defense, in which case the case must move to trial within 90 days. But it’s unlikely a defense attorney will request it in the case of a homicide, since that isn’t much time to mount a defense, not to mention all the motions involved.)
The case has hardly sat dormant. The court record shows a litany of motions, status conferences, challenges of witnesses. This is a case that is definitely headed for trial, and all the setup for it takes time. Hardly a month went by in 2020 and so far in 2021 that didn’t have some activity in the case.
You might not have much sympathy for Mr. Franck (though he’s not been convicted of the crime, it’s important to note). But you might be more sympathetic toward the tax dollars spent to house him. Using the typical $50 per day the county uses, Mr. Franck’s incarceration through April 13 has cost taxpayers $57,350. It wouldn’t take too many Francks to equal the salary of, say, adding another deputy in the county.
John Lee hasn’t been in the hoosegow for as long as Mr. Franck, but pretty close: 997 days as of our April 13 date. But unlike many of the others who have been in for nearly three years, the charges against Lee in the last five years are fairly minor. However, he was convicted of child enticement in 2015, and sentenced to four years in prison with ten years of extended supervision, according to court records.
Someone on extended supervision has a pretty strict set of criteria they need to follow. Any offense can send someone back to jail. What did Lee do last? His last conviction, according to court records, was a conviction for speeding. Except for most recently — Lee was cited in February for not wearing his seat belt.
Even with those many minor cases (with some felony bail jumping charges), Lee’s incarceration has cost taxpayers $49,850. The cost to house both Lee and Franck should just about pay the salary and benefits for a full-time deputy.
Another interesting case is Nhia Lee. Lee was charged in 2018 with possession of amphetamines with intent to sell. Lee highlights another reason for potential delays: The lack of enough defense counselors.
Lee’s case is now headed to the state supreme court after Lee wasn’t provided proper defense counsel in a timely manner. Lee was still in Marathon County Jail on April 13 — he’d been in jail 441 days, at a cost of $22,050. The State Supreme Court will weigh whether Lee’s constitutional rights were violated when he wasn’t appointed counsel in a timely fashion.
A common phrase appears in the court record of Lee’s file: “Court notes counsel has not yet been appointed.” Lee made an initial appearance in early Sept. 13; finally the head of the public defender’s office appeared to represent Lee in Nov. 7. That’s 45 extra days Lee stayed in jail beyond when he should have been given a preliminary hearing to weigh the evidence against him - at a cost to $2,250 to taxpayers.
COVID-19 has exasperated a backlog of court cases that already wasn’t great. Attorneys for both the prosecution and defense are in short supply in Marathon County, and the county in Gov. Evers’ last budget added a prosecutor but not as many as requested, while more when to Milwaukee and Dane Counties. Many were surprised since Dane and Milwaukee were far closer to their recommended staffing levels than Marathon County. Marathon County is still six short, District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon told county officials late last year.
It’s also important to note that the county has taken some important steps to mitigate the jail population, which has gone from overcrowded to manageable in the last few years. The county during COVID-19 took steps to cite low-level offenders who previously would have been arrested and, realizing the impact it had on the overcrowded jail population, petitioned the county board successfully to make those steps permanent.
As the tale of three Lee’s illustrates, there are many reasons for the court backlog and those backlogs are costing the county’s taxpayers money. That doesn’t make it easy. Criminal Justice can become a tricky shell game; sure, money spent in one area can help mitigate greater spending down the road, but that takes time; and in that time, you’re spending increases.
In other words, a program such as a drug court costs a decent chunk of change at the outset. It might save a lot more spending down the road if it reduces the number of offenders coming through the criminal justice system; but in the meantime, you’re spending on both of those things, and county budgets are limited. But other concepts, such as citing over arresting, can make a more immediate impact, and that frees up money for programs that can help.
But even in the case of, saym spending money on prosecutors, sometimes you need to bite the bullet and pay the upfront costs. Car repairs are similar — it sucks to pay for them, but leaving a needed repair unaddressed can lead to a bigger repair bill down the road. The state might need to take a similar stance in funding public defenders and prosecutors if it wants to see similar results.
Expect more on this topic as we dive further into the criminal justice system.
*In case you’re interested, the difference between robbery and burglary is whether you’re present or not. A common trope: “We’ve been robbed!” One couldn’t discover one has been robbed, because you had to have been present for it in the first place. In other words, if someone comes to your house when you’re not home and steals things, that’s burglary. If they come when you’re home, hold you at gunpoint or other threat and take your stuff, that’s a robbery. Although if it’s happened to you, you might not much care about the distinction in the moment.