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Attorney general pays visit to Lafayette County
Times photo: Brian Gray Lafayette County Sheriff Scott Pedley, left, welcomes Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to Darlington on Monday. Van Hollen visited to talk to police officers and other government officials about crime and law enforcement issues.
DARLINGTON - Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he was impressed with the number of people who attended Monday's law enforcement roundtable in Darlington.

"This is a bigger turnout than I get in some counties with this many police chiefs," he joked with the approximately 25 people who attended the meeting.

Officers from the Lafayette County Sheriff's Department and local police departments, as well as other elected Lafayette County officials, came to the meeting to talk to Van Hollen about law enforcement issues.

"This is an opportunity to share with you what we've done in Madison," Van Hollen said. "It's also a chance for us to learn about what safety concerns you have."

A proposal in Gov. Jim Doyle's budget to release some non-violent offenders from state prison was at the top of the list for local law enforcement officials. Some questioned how much of a burden the plan would place on local police departments that would have to deal with the released prisoners.

"It's naive to think that you can do something that won't affect something else," Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, said.

Rep. Steve Hilgenberg, D-Dodgeville, said the idea was only part of the governor's proposal and it's something that will come before the Legislature.

"No one is suggesting we just open the doors," he said.

Van Hollen said he is opposed to letting people out of prison to save money.

"I don't think we should risk public safety," he said. "Most people in prison work pretty hard to get there."

He said local judges make the decision to send someone to prison after they've heard the testimony and all the facts.

"There's no way anyone at (the Wisconsin Department of) Corrections can make a more informed decision than the judges," he said. "We need to have credibility in sentencing.

Van Hollen also addressed a concern about drugs in rural communities.

Methamphetamine use has increased in rural areas, even though the number of meth labs has decreased. Methamphetamines are being imported rather than produced, Van Hollen said.

However, the largest increase in drug abuse is from prescription drugs, he said. His department has tried to educate parents that drugs most commonly abused come from their medicine cabinets.

It's a difficult task to curb prescription drug abuse, Van Hollen said, because the federal government has cut funds to his office over the past couple of years. He hopes President Obama's stimulus bill will provide extra funds to combat the problem.

The group discussed illegal immigration, and Van Hollen said the Department of Justice has worked with federal authorities to deport illegal immigrants who are involved with gangs or other illegal activities.

Rep. Phil Garthwaite, D-Fennimore, said illegal immigration questions also must take into account illegal employment.

"The employer needs to be held accountable (if they hire illegal workers)," he said.

The topics brought up by the group will be used to help Van Hollen as he looks at crime and other issues that affect Wisconsin, he told the group.

"Every county has come up with an issue or idea we were able to take back to Madison," he said.