Concerns voiced at jail meeting

“Mass incarceration reduces crime in the short run—but at great monetary and social costs—and may contribute to the chronically high levels of crime in those distressed communities from which prisoners are disproportionally drawn and to which they return.”

—Dr. Richard Rosenfeld in the February 2004 issue of “Scientific American”

Winnebago County Board member Jim Hughes (D-11) appeared to express most participants’ sentiments at the Jan. 29 jail alternatives meeting at Memorial Hall when he said: “It’s been my position all along—I think we’re spending way too much money on a jail and not enough on alternative programs.”

About 40 people attended the meeting to voice their opinion about how a 1 percent increase in the county’s sales tax should be spent to address jail overcrowding and high crime rates. Winnebago County officials have proposed a $93-$130 million, 988- to 1,500-bed jail.

Of the estimated $23.1 million the sales tax hike is expected to generate annually, about 9 percent or $2.1 million of the jail tax is slated for jail alternatives and crime prevention. Specifically, $1 million is slated for programs in the jail and $1.1 million is for community-based programs.

Building, staffing and maintaining the new jail is allotted $9.7 million (or 41.8 percent) of the expected $23.1 million; banks that facilitate selling the jail construction bonds may receive about $8.3 million (or 36.1 percent); and hiring more criminal justice system workers may receive $3 million (or 13 percent) of the jail tax money, according to Steve Chapman, county administrator.

Frank Ware, executive director of Janet Wattles Mental Health Center and chairman for the committee examining jail alternatives and crime prevention, said his committee members were “very moved” by the “numbers of people” in jail and “constants” among inmates. Ware described the constants as unemployment, lack of education, substance abuse and mental illness.

Ware said his committee also hopes to suggest crime prevention measures and address the “pressing crisis for the numbers of people in jail.”

Most in attendance were representatives from various agencies such as Youth Services Network, Rosecrance Health Network, Rockford Police Department, Salvation Army and YouthBuild.

One person who identified himself as “Jimmy” and as a former Winnebago County Jail inmate, proposed that more public school students tour the jail. Jimmy said such a tour would have probably deterred him from crime. Jimmy added, “We have to catch the people before they are in jail.”

Participants addressed their concerns to representatives of the Crime and Alternative Program Committee—a subset of the Winnebago County Crime and Public Safety Commission. The original 24 commission members were appointed about 13 months ago by various local government and county officials to make suggestions on how to spend the tax money on design of a new jail, crime prevention and jail alternatives.

The other committee, which is examining design of the new jail, is chaired by local attorney Larry Morrissey. Morrissey said thus far, most of the discussion has been about design and location of the jail rather than implementing jail alternatives and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. Morrissey said “we’re putting the cart before the horse” when the size of the jail has been determined prior to earnestly implementing alternatives to gauge how large a jail is required for future needs.

Ware’s comments about inmates with substance abuse problems were echoed by Dr. Barry Spiegel, vice president of Medical Services and medical director of Rosecrance Health Network. Spiegel said “Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction are implicated in crimes and incarceration of 80 percent of the men and women behind bars nationwide.” Spiegel said the study was conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Questions also appear to be evolving about where to best spend jail alternatives money. The questions appear to be between alternative programs in the jail and programs that are based in the community.

Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers said: “What we have in the jail today is we have a small box with about twice the stuff in that we should.”

Speaking of the new jail design, Meyers said: “In between each pod [of the proposed jail] there is a training room to take alternatives to incarceration programs from the outside and bring it into the jail before the inmate is ever released back into the community. So, we can start that alternative issue and that training inside of the jail and not simply sitting there warehousing people.”

Kerry Knodle, executive director of Youth Build Rockford, said since there are “various points of entry” into the criminal justice system, “prevention and intervention” are keys to reducing crime rates and relieving jail overcrowding, especially at the juvenile system level.

Ware said about $1 million has been set aside for programs in the jail, and $1.1 million has been allocated for community-based programs.

Rev. Steve Bland, a committee member and senior pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church, added the committee wouldn’t know how much money was needed for jail alternatives until the alternatives were implemented.

Republican members of the Winnebago County Board such as Chris Johnson (R-4) have taken umbrage during the past year that the commission would have any influence, even though the commission was used by county officials such as Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli, to entice voters to approve the tax increase. Johnson argued the commission members are appointed and not elected and should not have a voice in issues that concern elected members of the county board.

Hughes concluded his comments: “A goal I want to have as a county board member is when we build 1,200 cells and only occupy 300 of them and the only way we’re going to do that to meet my goal would be to double the money and triple the money in alternative programs.” Hughes advised the committee; “I encourage you to ask the county board for more money. I’ll be there to support more money because the only way we’re going to solve this problem in our community is with alternative programs and not filling up our jail cells.”

Ware also announced tentative guidelines for interested parties to apply for jail alternative grant money. He said all proposals that have been received so far have not been read or evaluated and will be returned to fit new format requirements.

Ware referred questions to the Winnebago County Board Chairman’s office at 987-2590 or the county’s Web site at

The 1 percent “public safety” tax increased the county sales tax from 6.25 to 7.25 percent, which translates into a 13.8 percent overall tax increase. During the four-month period between July 2003 through October 2003, the jail tax generated $8,064,159.

The jail’s architectural team, led by Iowa-based The Durrant Group Inc., unveiled three exterior design options for the jail Jan. 28 at Memorial Hall.

To post comments about the Winnebago County Jail and read more about the commission, visit

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