County must examine alternatives to jail

The average daily county jail population rates per 100,000 people have skyrocketed from 138 in 1994 to 205 in 2002. This data corresponds with an increase in both the total number of drug arrests and drug arrest rates per 100,000 people.

Like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, the current war on drugs is draining our nation and our community of valuable resources.

In collaboration with crime expert and former jail inspector Dr. Michael Hazlett from Western Illinois University, the projected growth calculated through 2020 by The Rock River Times estimates Winnebago County needs 586 jail beds. This estimate assumes an incarceration rate of about 205 people per 100,000 residents. Not including the satellite jail (approximately 90 beds) and the existing jail (approximately 393 beds), the new jail will be designed for 975 beds with capacity of 1200 beds. Add all those together, and that’s a total capacity of 1683 beds. Welcome to the gulag.

The best way to predict future jail capacity is to just build the jail. Build it, and they will come, goes the maxim. The estimate for a jail capacity of 586 inmates is generous because it assumes that in 2002, there are enough beds for the average daily jail population.

In total, Winnebago County currently incarcerates about 506 people per 100,000 residents. This number includes the inmates sent to the Illinois Department of Corrections. By comparison, Cold War-era Soviet Union incarcerated 681 people per 100,000 residents, and Apartheid-era South Africa 750.

If the new county jail is built as planned, by 2008, Winnebago County will easily approach the incarceration rate of these oppressive regimes of the past, with a rate of at least 648. More likely, we will surpass them.

In addition to the new jail, in the future, Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli (R) said he would like to see the current jail be used to house even more inmates for holding purposes. Logli made this statement at the Dec. 26 county board meeting.

Is this the direction we want our county and society to head? Already, one in three males of African-American descent are incarcerated before age 30. And the county’s primary plan to correct such problems is to build a larger jail.

The plan

Community leaders hope to lower the crime rate and alleviate jail overcrowding. To accomplish this goal, the county’s plan is to spend 74 percent of the anticipated $23 million per year generated through a 1 percent increase in the local sales tax to build, staff and maintain a 975-bed jail in downtown Rockford. Voters approved the sales tax increase in November 2002. The increase takes effect in July.

The other 26 percent of the tax revenue will go toward alternatives to jail such as programs designed to change criminal behavior, new staff for the State’s Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and Circuit Clerk’s Office.

Increasing the number of judges to process cases would help relieve jail overcrowding, but that is the state’s responsibility. Unfortunately, local, state and national legislative representation for Winnebago County is relatively weak in this regard. Combine the weak leadership with the state’s current budget problems, and a new judge to help eliminate the bottleneck in the criminal justice system would be unlikely anytime soon.

The irony of the 1 percent sales tax increase is that it is regressive. In other words, the poor will be hit the hardest by the jail tax. The majority of criminals in jail are poor. Rich and/or powerful people, especially white-collar criminals, bond out of jail or the justice system, and the law allows them to remain free despite their behavior.

Community leaders justify the tax increase by arguing that 30 percent of the increase will be paid by people from outside the community who shop and dine in Winnebago County. This additional tax on those already challenged industries makes us less competitive in the regional marketplace.

The bulk of the plan was conceived by jail consultant Mark Goldman from Atlanta, who was recommended to the county by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. Goldman was part of the Winnebago County Justice System Master Planning Committee, which held meetings during 2001.

Minutes from the Aug. 15, 2001, meeting of the planning committee suggest that Goldman views jail construction as an opportunity for economic development. Do we want economic development based on jails and inmates, or should jails be just a necessary function of our community?

Furthermore, Goldman’s resumé, which was supplied to the NIC, reads:

“Goldman was director of Planning and Programming for a construction/program management firm where he managed and led all facility planning for the largest prison development program in the world.”

Apparently, Goldman is proud of helping build the largest prison development program in the world.

Goldman’s resumé says he has master’s degrees in criminal justice and architecture. Therefore, it is little wonder that Goldman ultimately recommended a 1,307-bed jail in November 2001—about a month after the draconian Patriot Act was passed by Congress. In 2000, Goldman originally recommended a smaller jail.

Goldman evaded the question of why he increased the number of jail beds.

Money, Money, Money

As Chris Bowman recently cited on his WNTA-1330-AM talk show, Winnebago County had the dubious honor of passing the most costly referendum in the entire nation. The closest referendum total elsewhere was $83 million.

Yes, yes, the powers-that-be said it was only going to be a mere $110 million or a mere one penny on the dollar. But with the 1200-bed capacity, that’s $130 million, oops. Add in the interest and sure-to-be-cost-overruns and get ready for a half a billion dollars in total payments.

We have fleeced our taxpayers for at least $27 million (or $47 million) more than our closest competitors (Lubbock County, Texas). But do we really have to spend the money?

The alternative

More effective alternatives to building a large new jail exist to help lower crime rates and alleviate jail overcrowding (this issue was examined in a series, titled “The criminal justice-industrial complex,” in October and November 2002 issues of The Rock River Times).

Hazlett toured the current Winnebago County jail in November 2002 and concluded that the current jail needs “renovations” but was of adequate size and structural integrity to handle the county’s criminal population well into the future if the alternatives to the jail were implemented in earnest. Hazlett suggested the county spend its resources on improving the economic, educational and social conditions in the community.

The alternatives to jail that Hazlett advocates will receive about 26 percent of the tax revenue. Critics of the county’s plan say the alternatives should get a greater percentage of the sales tax increase.

Specifically, Hazlett believes the county should spend more on increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the criminal justice system, housing, transportation and social services, and implement and expand community corrections, neighborhood watch groups, and community policing.

Additionally, talk of a federal cap on jail population further complicates the debate about the new jail.

Federal cap and financing

Last fall, Logli warned that the federal lawsuit concerning jail overcrowding may result in federal officials placing a “cap” on the number of inmates that can be housed in the county jail.

Logli has frequently repeated this statement as if it were something to fear.

For example, Logli said at the Sept. 30, 2002, meeting of the Rockford City Council, “We have a federal lawsuit over our heads.” Logli made a similar statement at the Dec. 26 meeting of the Winnebago County Board and on numerous radio and television appearances during the campaign to pass the jail referendum.

In contradiction, Hazlett said, “Living under a cap might not be that bad.” In Texas, Hazlett was involved in several lawsuits similar to the one filed against Winnebago County. Hazlett explained the lawsuit must go through trigger, fact finding, liability and remedy phases.

According to Logli, the county will soon inform a federal judge about the status of the county’s progress to reduce jail overcrowding.

Whatever the Winnebago Crime and Public Safety Commission recommends, the county board is not obligated to implement its suggestions. More likely, the end result, after the commission has made its recommendations and the county board votes to proceed, will be the biggest jail our tax money can buy (for information on the Winnebago County Crime and Public Safety Commission, see corresponding editorial, “Will jail commission say, ‘No,’ or just, ‘Yes!’?”).

If this is the result, the commission and the county board should consider utilizing renewable energy resources and technology such as solar panels and fuel cells to operate the facility. The county would be eligible for tax breaks and grants to finance such an effort, reducing costs to taxpayers.

In addition, should the law permit such a move, the commission should consider saving tax dollars from the sales tax increase in an escrow account until a new jail could be paid for in full rather than borrowing the money and paying interest on the bonds.

This move would not make banks happy because they stand to gain substantially from the interest payments. Any increases in jail construction costs caused by the delay would be more than offset by the savings on the total debt service for the entire project. This approach is similar to how churches finance new construction projects.

Should the plan that was pitched to the public by Logli and Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers be implemented, not only will the taxpayers lose big, the entire community will suffer.

If we solve the problem on the front end, we don’t have to spend the money on the jail end of the problem. For once, Winnebago County Board, save some taxpayer pennies; don’t spend the millions.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!