Caught between a jailhouse rock and a hard place

Caught between a jailhouse rock and a hard place

By Scott P. Richert

By Scott P. Richert

Freelance Writer

The best answer to overcrowding at the Winnebago County Jail may lie not in the hands of politicians but in a higher power, Sheriff Richard Meyers told an audience of about 50 at a Rockford Urban Ministries meeting on Thursday, Jan. 31.

His statement came near the end of a 90-minute meeting at Second Congregational Church, 318 N. Church St., Rockford. When a member of the audience asked Sheriff Meyers what he would do, given unlimited money and power, to ease jail overcrowding, Meyers responded, “If I could, on a Sunday, fill every pew in every church, put two parents in every household, get job opportunities out there. It’s a belief in God . . . strong families” that would make a lasting difference.

Failing such a revival, however, something needs to be done to ease overcrowding at the jail, which has already been the subject of lawsuits. (Attorney Tom Greenwalt, who filed one of those suits, was present at the meeting.) While the jail is designed to handle 180 prisoners, the average daily population in 2001 at the main facility was 500.

Sheriff Meyers attributed overcrowding to a number of factors, including higher arrest rates for domestic violence ( in domestic violence cases, bond is not granted, so suspects must spend the night in jail). Predetermined sentences for various crimes encourage defendants to exhaust all of their legal options, increasing the time before they come to trial. Although more policemen patrol our streets, increases in federal money for law enforcement have not been matched by increases in funding for corrections. Gang activity has also increased. Meyers noted that there is a higher concentration of gang members inside the jail than anywhere else in the community.

While building a new main jail or satellite facility seems an obvious answer, Sheriff Meyers argued that adding beds does not address the fundamental problems in the system. According to a Winnebago County study, if the only change made is the addition of beds, the county will need 2,300 beds by 2015. Construction of a new facility would simply be the beginning of additional expenses. Currently, housing an inmate costs taxpayers $50 per day .

Meyers argued that overcrowding puts both jail personnel and the wider community at risk. The lack of beds means that parole officers cannot punish those who violate probation by sending them back to jail. Instead, as many as one third of the jail beds are occupied by those who have committed misdemeanors but cannot post bond. Sheriff Meyers pointed out that the more dangerous criminals can usually make bail. In fact, at any given time, 10,000 suspects are out on bond.

“If you simply build beds without looking at the entire system,” the problem of jail overcrowding will worsen, Meyers argued. Much of the overcrowding can be attributed to backlog in the criminal justice system. Additional courtrooms, state’s attorneys, and judges could expedite the processing of cases at less cost than building a new facility. Graduated sentencing, which would allow prisoners to be moved to trustee care and work release more quickly, could open up beds, and placing courtrooms in any future satellite facilities could eliminate the costs associated with transferring prisoners to court.

If nothing is done to ease overcrowding, Meyers predicted that “the courts may cap the [jail] population. That solves my problem as corrections officer, but not as law-enforcement officer.”

The meeting was attended by Winnebago County Board members Polly Berg (D-7), Mary Anne Aiello (R-8), and John Terranova (R-9), as well as former Rockford School Board member Carol Bell, who is running in the Democratic primary for the State of Illinois House of Representatives seat currently held by Chuck Jefferson (D-67).

Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, the publication of The Rockford Institute.

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