Can postcards reduce jail size?

• Testimony suggests notification system can help reduce jail population

Recently released closed-session transcripts of retired Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Humphries’ June 30, 2003, testimony raises questions about how large a jail the county needs to avoid jail overcrowding.

Humphries testified behind closed doors almost seven months ago for former Rockford Police Officer Steve Johnson, before Johnson was controversially fired for alerting a former friend that he was wanted for an outstanding warrant.

Humphries testified that to the best of his knowledge, Rockford Police Department officials have never utilized a postcard notification system to alert people they were wanted on outstanding warrants—a system Humphries’ testimony suggests could cut the average daily jail population and the need for a large new jail.

The county jail currently has a capacity of 394 inmates and has proposed a 988-1,500 bed facility to reduce jail overcrowding. The county expects to pay $93-130 million for construction of a new jail, which many county officials hope to complete by 2007.

Voters approved a 1 percentage point increase in the county’s sales tax in November 2002, which translates into a 16 percent overall sales tax increase, to pay for pubic safety issues that county officials said was needed primarily for construction and operation of a large new jail. During the four-month period between July 2003 through October 2003, the jail tax generated $8,064,159, according to county records.

Humphries testimony suggests county jail overcrowding could be significantly reduced if Rockford implemented a postcard notification system similar to the county’s notification system. Humphries testified the notification system is designed “so that we wouldn’t tie the jail up.”

According to Humphries’ testimony, he served in the warrant section of the sheriff’s department for eight to 10 years before he retired June 27, 2003.

Calls to local attorneys in the field of criminal law, Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers (D), Winnebago County Corrections Director Dina Getty and Chief Judge of the 17th Judicial Circuit Kathryn E. Zenoff on the effectiveness of the post card system were not returned in time for publication.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said he thought the overwhelming majority of inmates in the county jail were apprehended by Rockford Police Department officers.

In the Johnson hearings, city officials said Johnson violated police protocol that warranted firing him. Johnson’s supporters said the firing was punitive rather than progressive discipline, which violates the police union’s contract with the city.

The following are highlights from Dan Cain’s questioning of Humphries. Cain is one of Johnson’s attorneys, along with Deb Schafer of Sreenan and Cain, P.C.:

Cain: “And other than verbal notification, were there other types of notification that occurred out of your office?”

Humphries: “Well, yeah, there was the postcard idea came up about 10 to 12 years [1991-1993] ago to alleviate a very large problem we had with the volume of warrants. Because we were dealing with 15,000 warrants in our files. …

“And we would mail them the card and then that person would turn themselves in either at the front desk of the Public Safety Building and/or to warrants, and that person would bring this bond money and they would go in and out of the system. So that we wouldn’t tie the jail up to try to have a person in there longer; No. 1, they would be right through the system, in and out, we wouldn’t have that jail population.

“At the same time we have gotten rid of a warrant. I hadn’t had to physically go out, remove that person from society for that period of time, book them through and maybe they wouldn’t have to wait or even get tied up longer in a jail before a jail appearance.

“Hopefully, they would get bond money. They would be in and out of the door.”

Cain: “You notify them by the card, come on in, bring the bond money, you accept the bond money, give them a process, process it, give them a return to court date; that was the end of it?”

Humphries: “That’s correct.”

The closed-session transcripts continued with Rockford City Attorney John Giliberti’s cross-examination of Humphries:

Giliberti: “Regarding these cards you talked about and discussed when attorney Cain has questioned you, isn’t it true that these cards, standard operating procedure with the county, is not to send cards out if the bond is over $500?”

Humphries: “There is a policy now in effect, correct, that limits it to $5,000 or $500 [10 percent of the total bail].” …

Giliberti: “OK. Now these notification cards that you have talked about, the postcards that you send out to subjects, those are not used by the City of Rockford, are they police department?”

Humphries: “No. I don’t think they have ever used it. Their system is slightly different than ours, and five years ago I could have told you they’re in the complete system, but to my knowledge, they have never used the postcard system.”

Near the end of Humphries’ testimony, Humphries said the postcard notification system was “just another tool to use to try to keep the [criminal justice] system from backlogging as much as possible.”

The postcard notification system is one of many alternatives the county could use to avoid paying for construction and operation of a large new jail. However, these alternatives were not implemented before plans for a new jail were conceived in 2000.

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