Jail alternatives set for Feb. 16

• Second opinion sought for ways to reduce jail overcrowding and crime rates

Get a second opinion before paying for major surgery. That’s the message behind some members of the Winnebago County Crime and Public Safety Commission’s asking criminologist Dr. Michael Hazlett to give a presentation and discuss jail alternatives, crime, and ways to reduce jail overcrowding before building a new $93-$130 million, 988- to1,500-bed jail.

To date, Atlanta-based Mark Goldman is the only consultant officially asked for his opinion about the size of the jail. Goldman is now a paid sub-consultant for the jail’s architect, Iowa-based Durrant.

Larry Morrissey, chairman of the jail construction committee, a branch of the commission, said Hazlett would probably meet with other commission members during the day on Feb. 16 and give a public presentation that evening. Morrissey said a time and place have yet to be determined.

Hazlett is a Western Illinois University professor of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration and former Texas jail inspector who has been studying crime for more than 25 years. Many of Hazlett’s graduate students are employed in law enforcement positions in the Rockford area. Hazlett is considered by peers to be an expert in crime statistics and research.

About 20 downtown Rockford River District members met Monday evening to discuss issues such as the size and location of the jail and that they wanted to communicate their concerns to county officials. Some attendees, such as Frank Schier, editor and publisher of The Rock River Times, requested asking all River District members attend Hazlett’s presentation.

The Rock River Times invited Hazlett to tour the Winnebago County jail in early November 2002, days before Winnebago County voters approved a 1 percent increase in the local sales tax to pay for public safety issues. Community and business leaders persuaded voters the sales tax increase was needed to pay primarily for a large new jail to relieve overcrowding, reduce crime rates and meet future incarceration needs.

After touring the current 394-bed jail, Hazlett said the county should consider renovating the existing jail, spending money on jail alternatives, concentrating efforts on incarceration preventions and improving the criminal justice system.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli has warned since 1993 that a new jail was needed to avoid a federally imposed cap on the jail population.

Logli repeatedly cited a federal jail overcrowding lawsuit that was filed in 2000 by Rockford lawyers John F. Heckinger Jr. and Thomas Greenwald as the primary reason voters needed to approve the sales tax hike. Logli said the tax increase was needed to pay for more criminal justice system workers, to build the jail, and to fund treatment programs and jail alternatives.

Heckinger and Greenwald filed a similar lawsuit in Winnebago County in 1995 and another in Stephenson County in 1994.

The lawyers were paid an estimated total of $275,000 for the 1994, 1995 and 2000 jail lawsuits. For the 2000 lawsuit, the lawyers were paid $152,505.50 by Winnebago County taxpayers last month.

When Heckinger and Greenwald filed their jail lawsuit in 2000, Goldman, an Atlanta-based jail construction consultant, was hired by Winnebago County to suggest ways to reduce jail overcrowding. After a series of meetings primarily with county officials, Goldman recommended a 1,307- bed jail in November 2001.

The number of beds was scaled back to 1,200 and then 975 after the public expressed concern at the size of the jail in 2002. The concerns were voiced primarily by members of the minority community.

Goldman was recommended to the county by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. Goldman’s 1999 NIC résumé 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 in the world.”

Of the estimated $23 million the sales tax hike is expected to generate annually, 8.7 percent or $2 million of the jail tax is slated for programs and alternatives, and $4 million is aimed for improving efficiency in the criminal justice system. The remaining 74 percent, or $17 million annual revenue, will be used to build, staff and maintain the new jail and pay interest to the banks that provide the bonds to construct the jail.

Hazlett explained in The Rock River Times’ 2002 series “The criminal justice-industrial complex,” increasing jail capacity through construction provides criminals the opportunity to learn new tricks of their trade that will likely increase crime rates in a community and drain resources from efforts to reduce jail overcrowding and crime rates. Hazlett advocated focusing on increasing the efficiency of the criminal justice system, jail alternatives, treatment programs and a scaled-back new jail and/or renovation of the existing jail.

Hazlett is not being paid for his presentation. However, The Rock River Times is paying Hazlett’s travel expenses.

Frank Ware, chairman of the jail alternatives committee, the other branch of the citizens’ public safety commission, said he and other members of the commission support Morrissey’s efforts to bring Hazlett to Rockford.

Ware’s committee is sponsoring a meeting for public input on jail alternatives and crime prevention at Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St., Jan. 29, 6-8 p.m. Contact Ware at 968-9300 for more information.

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