Note: An audio slide show accompanies this story.
On a Saturday in early March, Calvary Gospel Church is overflowing with people. They flood into rooms and hallways, waiting for free dental checkups, medical care, food and even haircuts - all services offered by dozens of volunteers.
One volunteer, 45-year-old Randy Fraser, distributes food outside under a white tent. Dressed in a blue coat, hooded gray sweatshirt and jeans, Fraser looks just like the other volunteers, smiling and eager to help.
But while other volunteers return home at the end of the day, Fraser heads back to the William H. Ferris Center - a county jail facility on Rimrock Road.
Fraser is one of the hundreds of Dane County inmates who perform community service while completing their sentences. He started volunteering five months ago as a way to get exercise and pass the time.
But as of February 1, a newly expanded county program allows him to use volunteer time to reduce his sentence. The program, administered by the Dane County Sheriff's Office, allows inmates who qualify for the program to exchange 24 hours of community service for a day off their sentence. A version of the program was initiated by County Executive Kathleen Falk and has been criticized by her challenger, Nancy Mistele.
Some Dane County inmates have been able to receive time off their sentences in exchange for community service for years. But Falk proposed expanding the program, giving more inmates the opportunity to participate, says Dane County Board Supervisor Paul Rusk[JJ5] .
"It doesn't do any good for them to sit around in the jail all day," says Rusk. "If they qualify for [work release] and they can be out in the community because the judge deems they're not a threat to public safety, they should be going to school or working at a non-profit or whatever, become productive members of society."
A person sentenced to a county jail under Wisconsin's Huber law may be allowed to leave the jail to work, seek work, attend school or perform community service.
The expanded community service program has changed significantly since Falk first introduced it as part of her 2009 budget proposal. Originally, the proposal required circuit court judges to include community service in sentencing. If they didn't sentence 45 inmates to the program by May, they would risk having their funding cut.
As it functions now, judges are not required to make use of the program, but in her radio ads, Mistele continues to attack Falk's judgment in proposing it in the first place.
Proposal under fire
A press release on Mistele's Web site says "Falk's budget attempted to withhold vital staff funding from judges unless they agreed to put more criminals on the street."
"Now she's telling judges how to sentence, and that undermines justice and affects public safety," one of Mistele's radio ads says.
She is not alone in her criticism of Falk's original proposal. Dane County Circuit Court Chief Judge William Foust balked at the proposal when he first heard about it. According to Foust, circuit court judges had discussed creating a community service program, but were surprised by the project that appeared in 2009's proposed budget. They were especially concerned with the link between program participation and judicial funding.
"We're supposed to make decisions on the nature of the offense, the character of the offender, the need to protect the public," Foust says. "We're supposed to make those decisions based on legal criteria, not based off our own self interest."
"Political blackmail," is what Dane County Supervisor David Wiganowsky calls the proposal. He believed the proposal gave the county executive too much control over judicial proceedings and violated constitutional divisions of power.
Amending the proposal
Because of pressure from Foust, other circuit judges and District Attorney Brian Blanchard, the Dane County Board of Supervisors significantly reshaped the proposal into the program that Fraser serves in today.
The county board removed the link between program participation and judicial funding. Responsibility for administering the program also shifted from the courts to the Dane County Sheriff's Office.
Although the goal of the program is to involve as many inmates as possible in volunteer work, not all are eligible. Charges, previous volunteer experience, skills, work experience, and good behavior are primary factors in determining which inmates may earn reduced sentences, says Lynn Montgomery, the Sheriff's Office volunteer coordinator.
"They're not murderers, they're not rapists. They're people getting in trouble with the law," Rusk says. "One of the aspects of their rehabilitation is being able to get some work experience through Huber[JJ8] or voluntary experience so they can function in society better when they're completely out of the judicial system."
Because the program is so different from the original proposal, Falk calls the claims in Mistele's ads "flat wrong."
She also denies Mistele's criticism that she has failed on public safety.
"For 12 years, I have doubled the budget of the sheriff from about $30 million a year to $60 million. I have added 111 new deputies," Falk says. "Public safety has been my number one priority 12 budgets in a row."
Rusk backs Falk up.
"These programs are difficult to explain so you can go on the air with a 30-second sound bite and you can try to make political waves, which I think is unfortunate," he says.
Even though the current volunteer program no longer links judicial funding with sentencing, Mistele supporters like Wiganowsky still criticize the program. According to Wiganowsky, the program helps prisoners, but ignores victims. He says volunteer activities are not necessarily appropriate punishment, using graffiti as an example.
"If they paint on the wall, have them scrub it off," he says. "Just making them walk around a park picking up garbage doesn't do anything to fix the crime and it doesn't do anything for the victim."
The county executive race is far from the mind of inmates like Fraser. He still has 104 days on his sentence, and the new program will help reduce that number.
He says that volunteering, regardless of whether it will reduce his sentence, has been a life changing experience.
"It's been very rewarding that I can be that kind of person instead of being on the street wheeling and dealing, getting drunk or doing drugs or stuff like that, " he says. "It's been a very positive change in my life."
Note: This story is the result of a partnership between Isthmus and UW-Madison journalism professor Sue Robinson's in-depth reporting class. This article and its accompanying audio slide show were produced by Katrina Rust, Annabelle Yeoh, Sisi Chen and Royston Sim.