Expert urges crime, jail re-examination

• Crime Expert: ‘If you build it, they will fill it’

Crime expert and Western Illinois Professor Dr. Michael Hazlett urged Winnebago County officials and community members Monday to re-examine efforts to reduce jail overcrowding and high crime rates. Particularly, Hazlett recommended reducing the size of the proposed county jail.

Hazlett repeated his message that the community should address crime and jail problems from many angles. For example, Hazlett recommended implementing and increasing community policing; updating community corrections; emphasizing drug, alcohol, and mental health treatment; and increasing efficiency in the criminal justice system.

Hazlett gave his presentation during television and radio interviews and at two meetings. He said leaders should consider reducing the size of the proposed $93-$130 million, 900- to 1,500-bed jail for a variety of reasons, such as dispersing “criminal subcultures” that teach crime techniques, motives and behaviors.

Hazlett said the larger the jail, the greater opportunities there are to pass the criminal subculture to another inmate.

“If you build it, they will fill it,” Hazlett warned, regardless of the number of jail beds that are built.

Hazlett said “fear” is a large factor in the public’s perception that they will be safer if large incarceration facilities are constructed. However, since 90 percent or more of the inmates in jail will eventually return to the community, Hazlett said the evidence and statistics show jail alternatives and programming are “more humane” and effective at reducing crime and jail overcrowding.

At the invitation of The Rock River Times, Hazlett toured the Winnebago County Jail in November 2002. Hazlett said Monday about the tour: “When I walked through the Winnebago County Jail last year, I would say you were suffering from jail bloating [overcrowding]. Some of it, frankly, was probably due to the inefficiencies of the criminal justice system here in Winnebago County.”

Rick Pollack (R-13), Winnebago County Board member and chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he was interested in learning more on how to examine problems in the criminal justice system and implementing accountability measures. Pollack added that he appreciated Hazlett’s presentation Monday evening at Memorial Hall, which was given to about 30 people from the River District, county residents and county officials.

Addressing accountability at the Feb. 4 meeting of the Public Safety Committee, Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said, “We’re not documenting what we’re doing very well.” Logli said efforts are being implemented to gather, process and report information that will be used to increase efficiency in the criminal justice system.

The county did not report average daily jail population figures to the state in years around two efforts to pass tax increases to pay for a new jail in 1993 and 2002. According to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA), the county did not report average daily jail population figures for the years 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2001 and 2002.

Hazlett also questioned the county’s projected needs for jail bed space that were solicited from consultant Mark Goldman, who also works for The Durrant Group, Inc. Durrant is an architectural firm that has Wisconsin origins, performs most of its work in Madison, and is designing the proposed Winnebago County Jail complex.

Hazlett compared trying to predict the number of needed jail beds to “nailing Jell-O to a wall.” Hazlett said, to make predictions about jail bed needs, assumptions must be made about growth rates and whether to use high, low or middle jail population figures. Hazlett said such “forecasting” is not accurate or reliable.

Instead, Hazlett encouraged leaders to think about the jail as a “scarce resource” that should be used primarily for “high-end offenders,” such as violent criminals. Hazlett said implementation of community policing and community corrections, such as electronic monitoring and supervision, are better options than incarceration that cost about one-third less.

“You do not run a risk by using more community corrections options that are available,” Hazlett said. In fact, Hazlett said, implementation of more community corrections programs may disperse criminal subcultures that may reduce crime and jail overcrowding.

Hazlett asserted that the most effective halfway houses, police substations and probation systems are spread out in the community rather than in one concentrated area. He noted the city of Houston’s success with this approach, and he said the decentralized approach is better for public transportation access.

Hazlett also said the stay of litigation for the 2000 federal jail overcrowding lawsuit has a provision for stringent construction requirements to make the proposed facility eligible to house federal prisoners. Such federal construction requirements add to the construction costs, and are much more stringent than state construction requirements for a local jail, Hazlett said.

During the past 20 years, the United States has committed huge amounts of money and resources to constructing, staffing and maintaining prisons and jails that have resulted in the incarceration of about 800 for every 100,000 people in an effort to feel “safer,” Hazlett said. However, such efforts have probably “aggravated” the effort to feel more safe, Hazlett said.

Local attorney Larry Morrissey, chairman of the ad-hoc committee for design of the new jail and co-sponsor of Hazlett’s Rockford visit, said he hopes the issues Hazlett raised will spark more meetings and discussion. Morrissey said the audio portion of Hazlett’s Feb. 17 public presentation will be available on the Web at a future date.

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