Jail is a social, financial fiasco

When word broke last week that Winnebago County was considering building a 1,212-bed jail instead of the 976-bed jail, we at The Rock River Times were not surprised—we were disgusted at being deceived, once again. Winnebago County Board members need to stop, look and forget about building a new jail. Instead, officials should renovate the existing jail, focus efforts on moving inmates through the criminal-justice system quicker and investigate repealing part or all of the regressive jail tax. This is the advice of criminologists such as Dr. Michael Hazlett. Hazlett is a professor of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University. Hazlett, a former Texas jail inspector, toured the Winnebago County jail last November—days before voters approved a 1 percent increase in the local sales tax. That sales tax went from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent in July to fund “public safety issues,” not just the jail construction, or so we were led to believe by the marketing firm of Cohn, Meyers and Logli. Strangely, not one crime expert such as Hazlett has been contacted by any county official about what really needed to be done. Instead, we have heard Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli beat the scare drum about federal lawsuits and criminals running in the streets since 1993. What credibility Logli had on the jail issue was lost last month when he tried to minimize the functionality of St. Mary’s Oratory during a WNTA radio interview. Logli’s comments were successfully challenged by Tom Fleming, St. Mary’s congregation member, editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and president of The Rockford Institute. County officials tried to pass a resolution to destroy the historic church to make way for the new jail. County leaders’ efforts to knock down the building failed after the plan was leaked to WNTA, which rightfully sparked public and congregation members’ outrage. Fleming refuted Logli’s arguments on air and severely reprimanded Logli for saying activities such as baptisms and weddings were not performed at St. Mary’s. Fleming’s pointed remarks prompted Logli to apologize. Give Logli credit for being big enough to admit he was wrong. Logli’s ignorance and/or attempted deception of the functionality of St. Mary’s is similar to the decade-old arguments he used to persuade voters to approve the jail tax. The Aug. 6, 1993, Rockford Register Star quotes Logli: “It is not going to be easy to convince voters. But they will have a clear choice in November: Do you want the bad people in jail? Or do you want the bad people in your neighborhood?” Sound familiar? It’s the same argument Logli used nine years later. The 1993 Register Star article continues: “If voters say no, the federal courts could end up running the jail…” warned Gene Quinn, Winnebago County Board chairman. Quinn’s comment was echoed by Logli last October in The Rock River Times’ series “The criminal justice-industrial complex,” which reads “Should the referendum be rejected on Nov. 5, Logli has warned the county faces a federal lawsuit in which federal officials may place a ‘cap’ on the number of inmates that can be housed in the county jail.” As Hazlett says, “Living under a cap might not be that bad.” Hazlett was involved in several lawsuits similar to the one filed against Winnebago County. Hazlett’s point was if voters rejected the jail tax, the lawsuit may force the county to implement more effectively proven measures to move inmates through the system faster, rather than warehousing them. Even Logli acknowledged this point in the 1993 Register Star article, which reads “Logli said one reason the jail is overcrowded is because the court system is understaffed and cannot move cases fast enough.” Yet, 74 percent of the jail tax goes to the jail, and only 26 percent is allotted to address the bottleneck in the criminal justice system. Even the federal lawsuit that allegedly prompted the need for a new jail is shaky. One of the two attorneys involved in the case has recently been charged by the state with “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” for allegedly “using” his clients’ funds “for his own business or personal purposes.” The attorney charged by the state, John F. Heckinger Jr., is Timothy Chatmon’s lawyer. Chatmon is a former county jail inmate whose case was repeatedly cited by Logli as the primary reason voters must approve the jail tax. However, Logli assured us that all the facts concerning Chatmon’s lawsuit have been “independently verified” by his office, the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department. But Logli acknowledged in The Rock River Times series that data collection mechanisms were lacking, which could precisely identify problems in the bottleneck. Such data collection would include number of continuances filed by the state’s attorney’s office, public defender’s office, or defendant’s private attorney. Other issues that must be addressed before the bottleneck is eliminated are the number of judges available to process inmates and the number of hours judges work, which has also been questioned. At an Aug. 15, 2001, meeting of the Winnebago County Justice System Master Planning Committee, Mark Goldman, the federally recommended jail consultant, suggested jail construction be used for economic development. Goldman later suggested the county build a 1,307-bed jail three months after the meeting. Concerns were raised about the size of the jail at a series of public meetings, particularly with the minority community, who said more of their community would be incarcerated longer. In September 2002, the size was decreased to 976 beds with an option to expand to 1,200 or more, if needed. Now comes the county’s pitch to increase the number of beds from 976 to 1,212 for the same $110 million price tag. Who believes that math? It also should be no surprise that Goldman now works for the jail’s architects, Iowa-based Durrant, Inc. Durrant reportedly told county officials that the increase in the number of beds would not affect the jail’s price. We are faced with a giant, multi-million dollar public works project tailor-made for the construction contractors—Goldman’s misguided economic development nearly fulfilled. Let’s line the pockets of the construction industry at the taxpayers’ expense, once again. Hazlett predicted the new jail will not solve the long-term overcrowding problems and will likely increase crime rates. Why? Primarily because the court bottleneck will persist, and inmates are eventually released back into the community. However, while in jail, prisoners learn new tricks of their trade in what we can call “Crime University.” Nearly everything about the jail has been poorly planned and executed, from its inception and scare tactics in 1993 to last week’s announcement that we may be receiving 236 more beds voters didn’t order. Yet, the hundreds of millions needed to build, staff and maintain the new jail during the course of the building’s lifetime continues to flow. The increase in the number of beds is bad news for taxpayers. With more beds, the criminal justice system can potentially operate even slower. What’s next, a federal lawsuit requiring inmates be entitled to a fair and speedy trial, which will trigger another sales tax hike? Let’s not forget the jail construction manager fiasco that allowed the county to circumvent competitive bidding laws. County officials should have requested construction managers’ request for proposals. However, county officials only asked for qualifications—cost was not a primary issue. Another option that county officials should have used was a general contractor project delivery system, which would have mandated competitive biddi

ng rather than a construction manager project delivery system. However, again, cost was not an issue. John Mroviec, a Chicago area construction attorney, said because the county didn’t ask for construction managers’ request for proposals, taxpayers will never know how much they could have saved. What we were told was that it was more important to get the right group for the job, not necessarily the cost. And who was awarded the job? At first, it was going to be construction giant Robert Stenstrom of Stenstrom Companies, Ltd. However, after this paper revealed Stenstrom’s questionable $5.6 million construction manager contract with Rock Valley College (RVC) and Winnebago County Chairman Kris Cohn’s use of Stenstrom’s airplane for her failed run for the Secretary of State’s office last year, Stenstrom’s jail construction management prospect didn’t fly. Don’t forget, the committee that originally awarded the construction manager job to Stenstrom was hand picked by Cohn, an allegation she has denied. Instead, Brent Johnson, president of Iowa-based Ringland-Johnson, Inc., and his politically connected team from Rockford, Scandroli Construction Company, and British and Florida-based Bovis Lend Lease, Inc., known as SRB, landed the $6.5 million jail construction manager contract. The county’s awarding of the $6.5 million contract to SRB was in spite of this paper’s March disclosure of Johnson’s alleged “no-bid contract” for construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Women’s and Children’s Health Clinic at 2780 McFarland Rd., which was built in the late 1990s. Never mind, the cost for SRB’s services for the jail is at least twice the industry rate for similar jobs. The allegations concerning Johnson were made public in a federal lawsuit brought forth by former UIC-Rockford medical college physician Dr. Joseph Levenstein against UIC-Rockford. Johnson worked with Durrant to build the Byron fire station that opened in 2000. Len Witke, director of criminal justice for Durrant, suggested in March the only reason Johnson and Durrant worked together in Byron was because Johnson was low bidder for the Byron project. In both Stenstrom’s and Johnson’s no-bid contracts, Logli placed the burden of proving illegality on individuals or groups. Time and again, Logli’s actions and statements suggest he is not interested in investigating possible high-level, white-collar crime in this community. Logli appears more interested in nailing street punks rather than the people who cultivate the environment that gives rise to the punks. More frightening is the by 2008, incarceration rates for Winnebago County are estimated to be at least 648 people per 100,000 individuals. For perspective, consider that Cold War-era Soviet Union had an incarceration rate of 681 per 100,000 and Apartheid-era South Africa had a rate of 750 per 100,000. Welcome to the Gulag, comrade. Turn over your wallet and forfeit all hope in actually addressing the root of Rockford’s jail overcrowding and crime rate problems. Then we have a good suggestion from County Board Member Jim Hughes (D-11) to investigate moving the site of the jail. Sylvia Pagel, local historic preservation activist, noted the likely site would be on West State Street between Pierpont and Springfield avenues. Approximately $10 million could be saved by not having to buy expensive River District property or fight with the City of Rockford over its parking lot. The tunnel or skybridge or whatever expensive means of connecting the new jail with the Public Safety Building would also not be necessary. Sources estimate the cost for the tunnel is from $1 million to $5 million, alone. Logli argues that transportation costs and safety issues dismiss this alternative site. Come on. How much will it take to outfit two buses so prisoners can’t escape? The buses, manpower and operation costs certainly will not approach $1 million to $5 million. To add more lies to deceit, the board is now going to use the jail-sales tax to offset budget shortfalls in public safety related staff. That was not part of the deal that the marketing firm of Cohn, Meyers and Logli sold voters last fall! Hello, job programs! What’s next? Will the jail-sales tax be used to pave Sunil Puri’s driveway to the Beloit casino, er… Perryville Road? What lengths will the Winnebago County Board go to, now that they have that never- ending jail-sales tax? Investigate repealing the tax before it’s too late. If the jail must be built, get it out of the River District and save money. Business people who have invested their life savings and efforts here don’t want a huge Gulag in our midst. Don’t put bars on the future of the River District, which looks pretty good right now, without the jail. Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this editorial.

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