Rock County sheriff’s officials say they don’t think public safety was compromised after they allowed more people to leave the jail on electronic monitoring bracelets in the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic.

And Sheriff Troy Knudson said Wednesday that he asked for more funds in the budget next year to get more bracelets.

Back in March, jail officials saw the potential danger of COVID-19 spread through the work-release program, known as Huber. Inmates who are on work release would be coming and going each day, perhaps bringing the virus into the jail.

The sheriff’s office decided to let those who were working under the Huber program leave on electronic monitoring.

“I think with this forced experiment, we’re able to see that we didn’t have the dire circumstances that some people may have predicted by putting too many people out on the bracelet,” Knudson said last week during a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting with other Rock County officials.

Between March 17 and June 19, the jail placed 109 inmates on electronic monitoring. Seventy-one of them—almost two-thirds—would not have been eligible under normal criteria.

Of those 71, only 12—or slightly under 17%—returned to the jail because of a rules violation or arrest, according to sheriff’s office data.

A sheriff’s office report included a breakdown of the reasons each of those 12 people returned to the jail, and most of them were for drug or alcohol consumption.

Knudson pointed out in an email Wednesday that, “The vast majority of those (12) were very minor violations that did not impact public safety.”

“Additionally, it is certainly possible that some of those violations may have occurred anyway if they would have participated in the more traditional Huber program,” he said.

One of the offenses, however, was an incident involving battery, disorderly conduct and damage to property, which the sheriff said last week was “probably the more serious issue” that brought someone back to jail.

Cmdr. Erik Chellevold guessed that the rate of inmates being brought back during that three-month period was slightly higher than normal, although he did not have an exact rate to use for comparison.

Still, he said it was not a substantial difference.

“At this point, what we’re experiencing is not alarming to us,” he said. “And we are comfortable with the alterations we made to the requirements.”

Both Knudson and Chellevold also said electronic monitoring offers a better way to track people than Huber. The sheriff’s office can make calls to check if people made it to their workplaces on a given day, but that isn’t the same as having the bracelet’s location, they said.

“It’s always a good idea if you can have somebody that’s working, being at home, being with family, being able to keep their family together and supported,” Chellevold said. “As long as they do their part, we’ll do ours.”

Kelly Mattingly, a defense attorney who heads the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said he supports getting more bracelets for the sheriff’s office.

Faun Moses, who heads the local state public defender’s office, also said at the Sept. 17 meeting that she supports expanding the list of who is eligible to be released on electronic monitoring.

The criteria before the pandemic, in part, excluded inmates with drug-related felonies (other than THC), sex-related felonies, child sexual assault cases, intoxicated driving as a sixth offense or more or contempt charges.

If most people are being brought back to jail for alcohol or drug use, Moses asked, could the county connect them with additional substance abuse services?

Chellevold said he did not have updated data on the months since mid-June, but he has not been told that the trend is any different now.

Recently, Chellevold said the sheriff’s office had about 50 to 70 people out on the bracelet per day. They don’t typically have many bracelets sitting around and not being used because there’s a fee for having them, he said.

At one point, however, he said they had a peak of about 100 or 110 people on the bracelets.

Even if COVID-19 is not as prevalent next year, Knudson still believes the sheriff’s office will expand its use of electronic monitoring instead of keeping inmates in jail.

“What I took out of it is, maybe we aren’t going to need so many Huber beds. Maybe we’ll need a few more bracelets moving forward,” Knudson said last week. “Maybe we can afford to be a little less conservative with our decision as to who can go back out into the community.”