Winnebago Co. approves funding for new jail diversion program

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WBAY) - Winnebago County will invest in an initiative to create a new jail diversion program. The goal of justice support services is ultimately to keep people out of jail and out of trouble.

“We need to get rid of tough on crime rhetoric, because that doesn’t help,” said Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett. “What we need to do is get smart on crime.”

District Attorney Gossett believes Jail Support Services can be that smarter way.

“The county board here has given us an opportunity to start this on a smaller scale version than what I originally wanted to do,” said Gossett. “But they gave us a chance to start it and see if we can make it work.”

The Winnebago County Board allotted about $280,000 in the 2020 budget to fund two human services workers for the program and to remodel the basement Orrin King building where it will be located.

Gossett originally wanted the program to be on the first floor of the building, which he says has more space and wouldn’t have required any remodeling, but Winnebago County’s corporation counsel is currently in that space and did not want to move.

Gossett says the idea of Justice Support Services is to address the underlying issues low-level offenders have instead of keeping them in jail.

“If we solve those issues then we get them out of the justice system for good,” said Gossett.

The program will provide various counselors, peer support, and other social services and community resources.

“What we’re trying to do here is bring these services together and make them available to this high needs population,” said Gossett.

He hopes to also get GPS monitoring, drug testing and other tools so judges feel more comfortable utilizing the program. Plus, Gossett argues this program costs taxpayers less money.

“If the average jail stay was even only ten days that’s still $550 that the taxpayers pay and it didn’t solve the problem,” said Gossett.

But County Executive Mark Harris has some concerns.

“There’s just a lot of questions out there, and I think they’re giving it like a really big build up, but it’s not clear that the substance is there,” said Harris.

Harris believes there are not enough people committed to staff the program and that more funding will be needed, but he agrees the concept is a good one.

“If we can actually reduce the amount of people in the jail by helping them access social services, I think that’s a good program,” said Harris.

In a written statement, Gossett addressed some of Harris’s concerns: “We are currently working out which entities are most needed at the outset of implementing the program as we have less space than we requested for full implementation. At this time we have commitments for a Justice Support Services program coordinator and case manager, a second case manager, Medication Assisted Treatment coordinator for Opioid intervention, a diversion program coordinator, diversion program assistant, Risk/Needs assessor, Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, and a member from Forward Services Corp.”

He went on to add that other services are also being considered, but at this point it’s a matter of working out the details and the remodel of the space. Gossett also stated that most of the people and services are already being paid for, they're just currently not in the same space.

Gossett hopes the Justice Support Services can begin in by late spring or summer of next year.

“I think this is going to be good, and I’m pretty excited to see it unfold,” said Gossett.