Editorial: Jail moratorium will hold the load

We need to hold the whole load of the jail construction cart and get the horses in front.

The horses, of course, are education, bond reform, electronic-home monitoring, day reporting centers, counseling, crime prevention and more staff and judges.

Those measures will pull us to the real size of the incarceration center. Those alternatives will affect the design, construction and operations of the proposed jail—and their significant costs. In the name of common sense, how can we really make any predictions until such necessities are considered and operating?

We have the money. The jail share of sales tax has already generated $4,017,162 in July and August. We will have at least twice as much by the end of the year, as a result of the holiday season. Let’s commit at least $8 million to these horses and evaluate their power before we see what kind of cart we really need. We’ll save money in the long run.

First, tell the federal court what we are doing to address the remedies required by the lawsuit. With a good plan, we’ll get more time.

Next, we need judges. Our state’s attorney and our municipal, county and state representatives need to make a special appeal to the Illinois State Supreme Court. The Court allots the judges and provides the budget for their salaries in each judicial district. We can offer a revenue-sharing arrangement. We write our own check to the state for the three new judges that Chief Judge Gerald Grubb says we need to eliminate our backlog.

Then our state’s attorney can ascertain how many people he will need in his office, as well as court clerks, public defenders and parole officers, to handle our existing problems, the new judges and eliminate that backlog.

Let’s get the staff and judges in place before, not after, the jail is built. Common sense. They should have six to nine months to operate to see how many beds must be occupied.

Also during that time, judges and administrators should collect data (as outlined in our Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 2002, issue) and implement bond reform to further reduce the jail population. That, coupled with electronic-home monitoring, education and counseling programs, should be part of the judges’ sentencing agenda. Also, would night court work here? It has elsewhere.

The rush, rush, rushing to build the jail before these common sense alternatives are considered and implemented makes all of the public wonder, “What is the real agenda?”

Shouldn’t common sense make anyone wonder why Rockford and Winnebago County need a jail that rivals the size of St. Louis and Milwaukee’s complexes?

And here’s another complexity not being addressed before the new jail is built—what are we going to do with the old one? How is it possible to build a new one when the only real plan for the old one is vacancy? Mildly put, that’s more poor planning.

When you add the capacity of the old jail (394) to the possible expanded capacity of the new one (1,500), that’s nearly 2,000 prisoners!

Is there something we’re not being told here? The back room talk around town is we could be a future detention center for federal prisoners. With the new federal courthouse right next door, that makes a degree of sense. They are now shipped in from Ogle County. Is this new jail the future criminal-justice-industrial complex for Rockford?

The city’s River District does not need that kind of new industry. All of the merchants here would like to know if that is the plan—up front. We have worked too long and hard to establish our businesses to be blind-sided by real or imagined terrorists shipped up from Guantanamo Bay or from around the world to the middle of our city. Maybe we’ll even get some immigration detainees they wanted to put in the federal prison that Ogle County turned down. Such a move would be strategic because we here in the heartland are as far away from any coast as you can get. If this is the plan, we want to know, now, not later, because we don’t want that kind of baggage and all of its horrible possibilities. If we reduce the size of the jail, we reduce that “convenient” possibility.

What is certainly a real possibility is what former Mayor Charles Box noted in the local daily as the “warehousing of young minorities.” Pilgrim Baptist Church’s Reverend Steve Bland also has that same concern. Both men are correct, and we all should echo their consternation. No one needs to be educated in jail on the nuances of more effective crime that will bring them back to jail; instead, offenders should be put on the path to rehabilitation and education that will keep them out of jail.

We must travel the thinking road with strong, steady and fairly-priced horses, or we’ll end up with the cart rolling away to disaster, weakness and willy-nilly spending.

Speaking of thinking roads, will the slick new U.S. 20 bypass curving around the new jail and West State Street affect the businesses on not only West State but East State as well? Yes, you can bet that if all the eastbound horses go around our central business district on new Chestnut Street racetrack, the River District will suffer.

The re-direction of traffic will have the same effect the mall does, cutting off circulation. Didn’t we just get rid of the State Street section of the mall about 20 years ago? Look what has happened since—the River District has life and is blooming. Now we are going back in time—just like I-90 bypassed us, leaving us decades behind. Enough Zoom-Zoom. We all need smart horsepower to pull our commercial and community development. That takes time and thought to develop.

Contrary to recent headlines in the local daily, the conflict between the county board and the Crime and Public Safety Commission is far from cooling down. The commission wants critical thinking, and the county board wants premature action to line the pockets of special interests.

More public input is a must. People should be able to hear a presentation by jail and crime expert Dr. Michael Hazlett, professor of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University. That’s what we have academics for—to give expert advice on practical applications. He should give a presentation to both the county board and the commission.

May the commission bring their steeds to bear on a proactive plan to reduce the bottlenecks in the courts and arrive at a Design A+; or we’ll all look like the south end of a northbound mule, carting away wasted taxpayer dollars and lives. Declare a jail moratorium. With Plans V, W, X, Y and Z, we’re at the wrong end of the alphabet. Pull up and think. Get an all-inclusive Design A+. Lighten the load. The cart does not go before the horses.

Tell that to the Winnebago County Board’s Public Safety Committee, which meets at 5:30 p.m. in the fifth floor conference room of the County Administration Building, Wednesday, Dec. 3. Delay the vote on the design options.

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