County approves $152,505.50 for jail lawyers

n Move marks second time the county has given money to jail lawyers since 1997

Jail lawsuit attorneys John F. Heckinger Jr. and Thomas E. Greenwald will receive $152,505.50 from Winnebago County as part of a 2000 federal jail overcrowding lawsuit. This is the second time since 1997 the county has settled with Heckinger and Greenwald concerning jail overcrowding. In total, the county has given about $317,500 to their law firms.

County Board Member Polly Berg (D-7) said she questioned the settlement in a Finance Committee meeting because plaintiff Timothy Chatmon wasn’t awarded any money. Berg said she was persuaded to vote for the deal by attorney Paul Cicero. John Sweeny (R-14) also said he was persuaded by Cicero to vote for the deal. The county board approved the deal Dec. 23 by a 17-8 vote with three absent.

Sweeny explained Cicero said the county could be liable for up to $600,000 if Federal District Court Judge Philip Reinhard imposed a settlement. Sweeny said the question was not whether the county would pay but how much. Sweeny asserted the $152,505.50 settlement represents the best legal advice the county had to make its decision.

Cicero said: “I do believe the amount of the settlement and the money that was paid was a very good resolution for the county, under all the circumstances; in part, because the current request for fees was over $600,000, and the longer the litigation continued, the larger that fee request was going to be.”

As to whether the litigant Chatmon received any money, Cicero said, “I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so. I thought we were paying fees and expenses. That’s my understanding.

“This was a lawsuit for injunctive relief for overcrowded conditions at the jail, not for damages. The lawsuit is inactive until and unless there is some future problem. The solution, the new jail, is on track,” Cicero said.

According to Stephenson County Administrator Russell Mulnex, Stephenson County paid Heckinger and Greenwald $120,000 in February 1998 as a result of a 1994 federal jail overcrowding lawsuit the team filed. Stephenson County voters approved a county-wide 1/2 cent sales tax increase in 1997 to pay for their $10.5 million, 216-bed jail that was completed in 2000.

Similarly, Winnebago County voters approved a 1 percent increase in the sales tax last year to pay for public safety issues. The tax, which went into effect in July, generated $4,017,162 in revenue in July and August.

County officials repeatedly cited the federal lawsuit as the reason a new jail and sales tax increase was needed to reduce jail overcrowding.

Jail critics claim voters’ decision to approve the tax increase was based on inadequate information on jail alternatives and threats of criminals running in the streets, which were made primarily by Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli.

The federal lawsuit could have imposed a cap on the jail population. With the lawsuit as a motivator, the county could have been urged into implementing jail alternatives, such as bonding reform and electronic monitoring before building a $97-$130 million, 988- to 1,500-bed jail.

Sweeny said it is “very, very late in the ball game” to discuss implementing alternatives before building a jail of the proposed size. However, Sweeny, a member of the Pubic Safety Committee, said he would be willing to listen to another crime expert’s opinion on how to decrease jail overcrowding.

The county based its decision to build the new jail on the opinion of federally recommended jail consultant Mark Goldman. Goldman was paid by the county for his services and is currently a paid consultant on the jail’s architectural team, which is headed by Iowa-based Durrant.

Western Illinois University Professor of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Mike Hazlett has offered a second opinion about how the county can reduce crime rates and eliminate jail overcrowding, free of charge. However, county officials have balked at the opportunity. Many of Hazlett’s graduate students are area law

enforcement officials.

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this story.

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