Wood County Sheriff: Take the virus seriously
By City Times staff
WOOD COUNTY – Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer At Home” order remains in effect. Only essential businesses can remain open, while travel must be restricted for an essential reason – including shopping for food, medical supplies, prescriptions and other necessities. Officials urge that getting those essentials should be happening once per week, and by one member of your household.
Failure to abide by the governor’s order is a criminal offense, and law enforcement will investigate any observed or reported violations of the order. But Wood County Sheriff Shawn Becker says his department will not be actively looking for violators, or forcing people to stay in their homes.
“We’re not going out and pulling people over, and saying, ‘Where are you going?’. The goal is voluntary compliance,” he said. “The first thing I’ll tell people is if you have a question about what’s essential and what’s not essential, get on the website for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Go there first. Everything will be explained. And then if you, as a business owner, still question whether or not you’re essential, you can put your information on that website and explain why you think you’re essential, and then they’ll get back to you.
“We’re not going to enforce anything until we hear something from the state. Again, the goal is voluntary compliance. We hope that people understand that this is a pandemic. It’s serious. People are getting sick and dying. We can control part of that. We can make it less of an impact on our communities. That’s where we’re looking for that voluntary compliance.”
In cases where people do not comply with the “Safer At Home” order, law enforcement has the option of issuing a citation under a Wood County ordinance which carries a fine of $200.50. For serious or continued violations, a criminal arrest can be made.
COVID and the jail population
But Sheriff Becker will tell you he’s got enough inmates already—from arrests to probation holds to outstanding warrants. And to make matters worse, an inmate who came in on a recent probation hold was presenting signs of COVID-19. Why is that significant? Becker says his department has to provide cell blocks to isolate potentially-infected people from the rest of the jail population. And while that inmate in question was not tested, Becker says it did spur a discussion on ways to reduce the Wood County jail population, which a few weeks ago spiked at 131 – in a 132-bed facility.
“I couldn’t tell you why this happened, but all of a sudden, within a couple-week period we’re bursting at the seams,” Becker said.
On top of that the pandemic hit.
“So we met with our Wood County judges and talked about, ‘Alright, how can we do this without putting our community at risk?’ We have people in custody for a reason,” Becker explained. “I have to really commend our judges. We sat down and looked at people that are in custody that are non-violent offenders that are on bonds. Can that be modified, and can we expand our electronic-monitoring program for the people that are in custody for non-violent offenses? The judges went through a list of inmates that were in custody and modified bonds, and got our inmate population down to around 75.”
Becker says a change like that will probably stick post-pandemic. As an example, many inmates were brought in after warrants were issued for their arrests because they failed to pay fines for things like speeding. Sheriff Becker says many other agencies – like the Marshfield Police and Portage County Sheriff’s Departments – send those citations to collections.
“It saves jail space, and we’re going to work on trying to lower the jail population the right way,” he said. “I really feel this is the right way, because I don’t feel that people that forgot to pay a citation need to be in jail. The goal is, ‘Alright, you made a mistake. You’re getting fined.’ The punishment is the fine, not jail. It’s something that a lot of other counties and municipalities are doing.”
Besides saving on jail space, the sheriff says the move could save the county a lot of money in the long run, noting that Wood County’s contract with Adams County to house excess inmates is in the neighborhood of $400,000 annually. Plus, he says, those inmates will be out working, and thus able to more adequately pay their fines.