Could a west-side jail save millions?

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-0bZxqGXC0M.jpg’, ”, ‘The vacant 33.71 acres near the northeast corner of West State Street (red line) and Springfield Avenue was proposed to be the site of the new jail.’);

Different jail location has not received much support

Winnebago County Board member Jim Hughes (D-11) said taxpayers could save millions in jail construction costs if the county board accepted his proposal to move the proposed facility about 2.3 miles west from its current downtown location. The savings was estimated between $9 and $13.7 million, which Hughes said could be spent on jail alternatives and programming.

Hughes made his proposal known several months ago, but the idea hasn’t received much support. Currently, $2.1 million out of an expected $23.1 million has been slated for jail alternative programs in the jail and community-based programs.

The anticipated $23.1 million is being generated from a 16 percent increase in the county’s sales tax that jumped from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent last July. Through February, the jail tax collected $16.2 million, according to County Administrator Steve Chapman.

Although board members have been cool to Hughes’ proposal, Pete MacKay (R-5) said: “I think it’s a good idea. The cost of building it would be a lot lower.”

The county budgeted $93 million for constructing the proposed 900- to 1,500-bed jail. However, that cost does not include $4.2 million for land acquisition and relocation; $500,000 to $1 million for an underground tunnel that would connect the new jail and court rooms to the existing jail and courthouse; and $5 million for underground parking. According to these available figures, the total cost could range from $102.7 to $103.2 million. The original proposal was $130 million for total construction.

Hughes said many of those costs could be eliminated if the jail were built on 33.71 acres of vacant land located near the northeast intersections of West State Street and Springfield Avenue. The property is owned by a trust fund in the name of the late Clayton Andrews, a Rockford developer who died several years ago.

Hughes estimated the Andrews’ property could be purchased between $10,000 to $15,000 per acre, or $337,100 to $505,650 compared to $4.2 million for land acquisition and relocation in the downtown River District.

Inmate transportation

Hughes and MacKay said Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers estimated about six inmates per weekday would have to be transported the 2.3 miles from a west-side jail to the downtown courthouse. Hughes and MacKay asserted they heard Meyers cite that number of inmates several months ago.

Meyers said Monday 103 inmates per week day would have to be transported. For the past 10 years, the average daily jail population has averaged about 500 inmates.

Kathryn Zenoff, chief judge of the 17th Judicial Circuit, referred questions about the numbers of inmates that would have to be transported to Meyers.

Using six inmates per weekday in need of transport, The Rock River Times estimated the cost of transportation and supervision would be about $150,000 or less per year. Using the sheriff’s estimate for number of inmates, transportation costs balloon to about $425,000 per year.

Polly Berg (D-7) doesn’t like the idea of transporting inmates, especially felons. “I have to go along with the experts in this field like [Winnebago County State’s Attorney] Paul Logli, Sheriff Meyers, and [Director of Court Services] Vince Murphy. They say the jail needs to be downtown near the other services like probation and bond out,” Berg said.

Echoing Berg’s sentiment, Randy Sturm (R-5), said “I think it should be kept downtown with all the support services.” He was also skeptical of Hughes’ and MacKay’s assertion about the number of inmates that would have to be transported to downtown courts.

Hughes quipped the reason his idea of west-side jail wasn’t seriously considered was that a 2.3-mile underground tunnel would require judges to use a golf cart for transportation to the new jail and court facilities.

Sturm and Berg argue that the county has already bought a large number of the 51 properties needed for the proposed jail and parking. If the properties were sold, Sturm fears the county could lose money.

As of May 31, tax and Recorder’s Office records show the county owns 12 properties within the area designated for the jail. The records suggest the value of those properties is $484,267. The records also show Rockford owns 15 of the proposed jail properties. Twenty-four other properties were owned by 13 private entities and individuals.

Economic development

John Sweeny (R-14) said the size and location of the jail have been determined, and he would not support efforts to move or downsize the jail. Sweeny also said at several public meetings during the past eight months that the new jail could catalyze economic development.

MacKay said: “I think the idea to use the jail as an economic development tool is bulls- – -. They’re [county board members] making no attempt to conserve that money for taxpayers.”

Crime expert Michael Hazlett, professor of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Western Illinois University (WIU) said when counties build new jails they are made larger than their community needs to attract lucrative contracts for housing inmates from all levels of government, especially at the federal level.

Prior to his teaching and researching duties at WIU, Hazlett was a Texas jail inspector. He toured Winnebago County’s existing jail in November 2002, and also examined Winnebago County’s bed-space needs. Hazlett concluded the county needed to renovate the existing jail, which has a capacity of 393 inmates.

Hazlett added that the county should employ more jail alternatives, and discouraged thinking of jails and prisons as economic development tools, but rather as unfortunate necessities of society that should be used cautiously.

Hazlett also said dispersing criminal elements throughout the area is a key component to reducing crime rates. Relocating the jail away from downtown could play such a role.

About the same time Winnebago County voters approved the tax for a new jail in 2002, Ogle County officials rejected federal officials, proposal to help pay for construction of a $35-$40 million, 640-bed federal immigration detention center/Ogle County jail.

Winnebago County Board member Doug Aurand (D-3) said last fall he would support efforts to house federal prisoners in the county’s new jail.

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the downtown River District Association, said “The subject of moving the jail hasn’t been discussed, but we may discuss it Thursday [June 10].”

The River District is composed of primarily businesses that advocate issues that affect their members. However, Wheeler added that the River District didn’t issue a position concerning the November 2002 referendum that asked voters to pass the “public safety” sales tax.

Logli and Meyers were the chief forces that said the public safety tax was needed to reduce jail overcrowding and high crime rates. Logli repeatedly cited the 2000 federal jail overcrowding lawsuit as the primary factor behind the need for the jail tax that was required to avoid a federal cap on the number of inmates allowed in the county jail.

Jail alternatives and programs

At a Jan. 29 public meeting about the jail, Hughes said: “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.”

Jail alternatives and crime prevention programs are slated to receive about 9.1 percent of the jail tax money, which may total about $2.1 million this fiscal year.

Hughes directed concluding remarks to the jail alternatives and crime prevention committee by saying: “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.”

The committee has balked at Hughes’ advice.

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