Jail tax needs court challenge

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Fraud (noun): deceit; trickery.

When Winnebago County election officials reported in November 2002 that the jail tax was approved by 56 percent of the voters, citizens did not know just how much of the truth about the need for the tax was not conveyed to them before the vote.

Since that time, The Rock River Times has published numerous articles about what was not said, considered, examined or implemented that would have reduced jail overcrowding and made the tax unnecessary.

Analysis of that information leads us to conclude the jail tax was likely approved under fraudulent conditions which necessitates legal action to challenge its validity.

Taxpayers’ goal should be to expose the whole truth, repeal the entire tax and return money already collected to its rightful owners.

Supporters of the jail tax cited the 2000 federal jail overcrowding lawsuit as the primary reason voters needed to approve the 16 percent increase in the county’s sales tax, which jumped from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent on July 1, 2003. That lawsuit was filed by attorneys Thomas E. Greenwald and John F. Heckinger Jr., on behalf of former inmate Timothy Chatmon.

More on Chatmon and Heckinger later.

The federal court never had the power to order the county to construct the planned $102.3 million, 1,212-bed jail. The court could, as supporters were quick to argue, impose a “cap” on the number of inmates the jail could house.

One of the pointmen for selling the jail tax to voters, Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli, repeatedly cited the cap as the reason it must be approved, or else criminals would run rampant in the streets, which would exacerbate Winnebago County’s high crime rate.

As The Rock River Times research suggests, Logli and the other pointman for the tax, Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers, apparently did not thoroughly examine or advocate implementing measures that would have immediately reduced jail overcrowding, and very likely rendered the tax unnecessary.

As a result, this regressive levy with no sunset provision has bilked sales-tax payers of an estimated $24 million during its first year. Moreover, the plan on how to use the tax will probably contribute to future jail overcrowding and exacerbate high crime rates, rather than reduce them.

Let’s call this tragedy what it really is—an unfair tax that needs to be challenged in court by taxpayers to examine to what extent this endeavor was a true concern for the well-being of inmates allegedly held under unconstitutional conditions versus a planned, giant public works project designed primarily by, and for, the benefit of the local oligarchy at great social and economic costs.

That challenge could have been led by Logli in federal court before the tax was implemented. However, Logli chose not to lead that fight.

Instead, Logli tapped Paul R. Cicero of Cicero and France, P.C., for the job of defending taxpayers. Cicero was a frequent contributor to the campaign funds of Meyers and former Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn, another jail supporter. Cicero contributed a total of $2,400 to their campaigns on five occasions between 2001 and 2003.

Cicero defended Meyers in the federal lawsuit. Cicero was also treasurer for the group behind the public relations and advertising juggernaut called the Winnebago County Citizens for Public Safety 2002.

Logli said Cicero being treasurer was not a conflict of interest, and was logically consistent because Cicero was working to remedy the alleged problem.

The remedy Cicero agreed to was building a giant jail, opening it by Oct. 1, 2007, and reducing the average daily population to 400 inmates by next year at this time.

Logli claimed the agreement was needed to save taxpayers money, avoid the cap and avoid a trial. Let’s not build the jail, and insist on a trial to discover what else wasn’t revealed to us before the vote on the tax.

When Cicero negotiated the stay of litigation, was he a victim of “groupthink,” which is the seeking of consensus and avoidance of disagreement by a group at the expense of productive problem solving? It appears that way. Cicero’s firm was paid $100,930.80 by the county for the case.

The defense Cicero could have argued was succinctly made by crime expert and former Texas jail inspector Dr. Michael Hazlett, professor of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University. He examined a list that described why inmates were in jail and their bond amounts. He also toured the jail in 2002. After his review, Hazlett estimated about one-third of the approximately 700 inmates could be immediately released if the county implemented inexpensive bonding reforms.

Hazlett also said although the existing jail needed renovations, increasing its capacity of 394 inmates was not necessary. He added that not only was a new jail not needed, a larger jail would likely contribute to high crime rates because inmates learn new criminal techniques in jail, and eventually return to the community to practice their trade.

Reforms as simple as mailing postcards to people wanted on outstanding warrants could have also reduced the average daily jail population. However, the Rockford Police and Winnebago County Sheriff departments never implemented such a system to help reduce jail overcrowding.

We need to find out why they didn’t in court.

Another crime expert familiar with Winnebago County’s jail overcrowding is Dr. Allen Beck of Kansas-based Jail Concepts Inc. Beck authored articles that indicate the consequences of not implementing measures to reduce overcrowding result in a phenomenon known as jail bloating—a condition in which a jail population is unnecessarily enlarged due to causes other than crime and sentencing laws.

Beck described seven jail-bloating indicators in his articles that Hazlett diagnosed, which applied to Winnebago County in 2002 (see June 23 article “Should the jail be downsized?”). County officials ignored Beck and Hazlett’s unbiased research and opinions about how to remedy the situation that would have cost taxpayers much less than $24 million per year.

In fact, County Board and Public Safety Committee member John Sweeney (R-14) said he relied exclusively on Logli and Meyers for his decisions.

Now that the tax is collecting more money than the county can justifiably spend on jail construction, officials want to again tap the tax for other spending to fill next fiscal year’s alleged budget holes.

County officials have proven themselves unworthy of trust for any use of the jail tax.

Hazlett and Beck said remedies should be implemented before determining the number of beds that may be needed for a new jail. That didn’t happen because Meyers claimed the tax money was needed to enact overcrowding remedies, which have reduced the daily population from about 700 inmates last year to 550 in March.

Our research strongly suggests the reduction could have occurred without the tax.

Many people were duped into voting for the tax because Logli and Meyers were trusted. Therefore, the need for a giant jail, and the fear and threats they peddled before the vote about criminals in the streets, must have been real. At best, the need, fear and threats were exaggerated.

A court challenge of the tax will likely delineate the extent of the exaggerations.

The county board, local media, business leaders and the many public officials who supported the “public safety” tax were negligent in their duty to question the need for the tax and question the probable outcomes of the proposed remedies for the alleged overcrowding.

This newspaper was about the only outlet that asked hard questions that needed to be answered. And the answers did not support the reported rationale for a new tax or the disproportionate amount that was being funneled to build the jail versus the alternatives.

If you build a larger warehouse, they will fill it. Who will fill this warehouse? Largely, minorities. Minority community leaders must step up to stop this.

Another large segment of the population will most likely be federal prisoners. Conveniently, a new
federal courthouse will be built nearby. Ogle County voters rejected a federal immigration detention center in their back yard—yet the federal government must put those prisoners somewhere.

Winnebago County voters should also reject federal prisoners. They are not an industry. Just imagine if we get federal prisoners for trial from Guantanamo Bay! The kind of baggage that accompanies federal prisoners would be a disaster for Rockford.

Yet, our public officials are more than willing to accept federal prisoners. County Board member Doug Aurand supports housing federal prisoners in our jail. Meyers has been elusive about the question. Is that why we have such a huge capacity between the old jail and the new jail—potentially 1,800 to 2,000 prisoners—rent-a-cell as income and accommodations for Homeland Security? Tell our public officials: “No! We do not want this kind of trouble for our community!”

Logli, Meyers and the County Board all cited one man’s opinion as the reason we needed the jail tax to pay for the giant jail. That man was Atlanta-based consultant Mark Goldman, who was and remains on the payroll of the jail’s architect, Wisconsin-based The Durrant Group Inc. Durrant and Goldman recently made a similar jail pitch to DeKalb County officials. They bought the idea to add 75 beds to their 89-bed jail, and add one-half cent to their sales tax. However, unlike Winnebago County, DeKalb voters rejected the proposal last spring.

They probably learned from Winnebago County’s fiasco.

Obviously, Goldman and Durrant had economic interests when they tried to persuade public officials to build a jail, regardless of whether it was needed.

The question that needs to be answered in court is why Winnebago County officials relied on just one person’s biased opinion for what may turn out to cost taxpayers close to $500 million during the next 20 years after banks, bond holders and contractors are paid for construction of the jail.

One person’s opinion is what they relied on for the most expensive project the county has ever considered. It is common practice to get three estimates before making a large purchase—in many cases, it is mandated.

However, our public officials were content with one biased opinion. These officials were not only derelict in their duty to get three expert opinions, but to make sure they were unbiased recommendations.

And what did Goldman recommend?

Goldman made several recommendations, the lowest of which estimated the need for 1,628 beds by 2020. If adhered to, Winnebago County incarceration rates could surpass Cold War-era Soviet Union and approach apartheid-era South Africa incarceration rates!

Goldman’s résumé also boasts he “led all facility planning for the largest prison development program in the world.” With a résumé like that, is it any wonder we’re getting a giant jail? Is this the fellow Cicero relied on to negotiate the stay of litigation for the lawsuit? Doesn’t his résumé reinforce that we will get federal prisoners?

What about the plaintiff in the lawsuit, Timothy Chatmon? Information found earlier this year indicated he was on parole in Rowlett, Texas.

Chatmon alleged in one of his eight federal lawsuits filed since 1991 that “law enforcement agents conspired to frame Petitioner [Chatmon] for a murder he did not commit, …charged [Chatmon] with instant crimes due to a conspiracy to frame him based upon a previous murder conviction which had been reversed for a new trial during post-conviction proceedings, …[and] the State’s Attorney conspired to charge Petitioner [Chatmon] on the basis of his prior involvement and suborning perjury in a previous conviction of murder that was reversed on appeal,” according to Michael Glick, assistant attorney general for the State of Illinois.

Glick wrote his statement in a March 2003 response to Chatmon’s writ of habeas corpus petition to overturn his 1996 conviction on armed violence, drug and weapon charges in Winnebago County.

Chatmon’s petition was dismissed on March 28, 2003, by Federal Judge Philip Reinhard.

Logli said there was no conspiracy by him or Winnebago County law enforcement officials to frame Chatmon on the armed violence, drug and weapon charges or the murder.

A court challenge to the jail tax may answer questions such as: under what conditions was Chatmon paroled, and is there any truth to what he alleged about conspiracies to frame him?

Chatmon’s attorney, John F. Heckinger, doesn’t look much better with the recent suspension of his law license for 60 days. Heckinger accepted the suspension after he was charged by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission with five counts of alleged unauthorized use of his client’s funds “for his own business or personal purposes.” He was also accused of failing to separate his money from his client’s funds.

Taxpayers need an attorney with integrity who is willing to challenge this tax in court, and answer these and other questions. Who’s up to the challenge to save taxpayers untold millions of dollars and perhaps force county leaders to rethink their approach to addressing a very important and complex issue?

In the meantime, time is essential. The bulldozers are roaring, tearing down buildings for the four-square-block jail complex. This huge gulag will damage the image and business climate in the River District for decades to come. Economic development should not be based on a jail. In fact, the jail will discourage economic development.

The bill of goods that was sold to the public needs to be returned by a challenge in court. The need for the tax was misrepresented. The amount of the tax was inflated. The jail must be stopped now. A court challenge is our only option. Who will step up for our future and our wallets?

One of the greatest things our society really has to fear is the criminal justice industrial complex. We don’t need federal problems here, and we don’t need an overinflated size and tax for our jail. The only way to stop this juggernaut is in court. This ruse must be stopped now.

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this editorial.

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