Damakant Jayshi

Marathon County’s Public Safety Committee on Wednesday approved a request to install standardized audio/video equipment in six courtrooms and two hearing rooms in the courthouse in Wausau to “address the case backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Documents shared at Wednesday’s meeting show the current system is inadequate to address the backlog. But if video conferencing is used, the equipment must comply with state operational standards. The upgrade project would be eligible for American Rescue Plan Funding (ARPA), according to county documents.

Officials from both the Marathon County Circuit Court and Marathon County Sheriff’s Department say the upgrade would address the backlog by allowing more hearings, cutting back on transportation of inmates and interpreters. Installing the equipment will also be a cost-saving measure, officials said.

In Marathon County, 245 people are incarcerated, with 179 inmates housed physically in the county jail. The remainder are in other county jails, shelter homes, in secure detention and under home monitor. Of these, 150 inmates are awaiting disposition of their cases. About 40 inmates are on probation holds of some sort. 

Marathon County Chief Deputy and Undersheriff Chad Billeb said this upgrade is in line with state Supreme Court rules and state laws. The total estimated cost of the project, including renovations of the courtrooms and jail, is $630,000. The budget includes renovations to the jail, he said.

Once the project is approved, Billeb said, upgrades will begin in two courtrooms and then extended to others, including the two hearing rooms and the jail if the result is acceptable.

The project has been listed under the 2021 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and an amendment was required for its inclusion. The funds for the project will come through American Rescue Plan Act. ARPA is a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that includes $350 billion in emergency funding for state, local and territorial and tribal governments, known as the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds.

“The reason we bring this as a 2021 CIP request is to begin this as soon as possible,” said Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard, adding that other counties have been upgrading their court system along similar lines. Leonhard added that once the committee made its recommendation, it would head to the Human Resources, Finance and Property Committee for its review before the full County Board makes a final decision the funding. The county’s Public Safety Committee approved the amendment.

(To read the Circuit Court’s request and its rationale for the upgrade, click here, and go to page 5.)

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.

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