Jail tax spending priorities questioned

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The jail tax collected $52,440,306 from local consumers from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2005

Despite generating millions more than expected each year, only about 2 percent of Winnebago County’s jail tax was spent on programs that may have a long-term impact on the County’s alleged jail overcrowding. In addition, questions have been raised as to how the County evaluated the success or failure of those rehabilitation programs in the first funding year the County awarded $1.09 million to 10 agencies.

This funding year, the County plans to increase program spending $500,000 to $1.59 million. However, that money will be spread out to recipient agencies from 10 last fiscal year to 16 this funding year.

The money to fund all the programs comes from a 16 percent increase in the County’s sales tax, which jumped from 6.25 to 7.25 percent July 1, 2003. Voters approved the tax hike in November 2002, after a hotly debated campaign in which no organized opposition questioned claims made by supporters of the tax increase.

During the first two years since Winnebago County’s jail tax was implemented on July 1, 2003, $52,440,306 was collected from local consumers. However, only 2.07 percent, or $1,087,550 million, was spent on out-of-system programs designed to keep inmates from going back into the criminal justice system. An additional $1 million was spent on in-house programs such as drug and mental health courts that are administered within the jail.

Cutting the pie

Kerry Knodle, executive director of YouthBuild-Rockford and Comprehensive Community Solutions, has concerns not only about the amount of money the County plans to spend on jail alternative programs, this year, but how the County evaluated the “outcomes” of those programs last year. He also has concerns about the increased number of agencies seeking a “piece of the pie.”

“In an attempt to satisfy everybody, they’re going to chop up the pie into such small pieces that they may not get the results they’re looking for. …It’s progress that they’ve gone from $1 million to $1.5 million, but it’s woefully inadequate—especially when you look at what it costs to serve people in these various programs,” Knodle said.

His agencies serve clients ages 16 to 24 that often come from the criminal justice system. Knodle’s agencies assist their clients in acquiring academic and job skills, training in construction trades, education in computer technology, and offer counseling services.

Knodle hoped to expand the age of the people he serves from 24 to 28, and asked for $200,000 in funding. However, the County has budgeted just $80,000 for YouthBuild.

Knodle would like the County to spend more on programs to alleviate the jail overcrowding and help reduce the County’s high crime rate, which are the primary reasons the jail tax was approved by voters in November 2002.

Federal lawsuit and priorities

The jail tax was also approved under the threat of a “cap” being placed on the number of inmates in the jail. That idea was promulgated by Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli and Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers.

During the campaign for the jail tax, Logli and Meyers suggested criminals may be let loose on the streets if the federal court placed a limit on the number of inmates that could be housed in the existing jail. Logli and Meyers said the “cap” could be imposed by the federal court to eliminate alleged overcrowding in the jail, as a result of Timothy Chatmon Sr.’s 2000 lawsuit.

Primarily for this reason, Logli and Meyers urged voters to approve the jail tax, which is formally known as the public safety tax.

However, Chatmon disagreed with the County’s priorities in solving the alleged overcrowding by building the new 1,212-bed jail. Instead, Chatmon wanted to fire the lawyer in his case and urged more money be spent on alternatives to jail (see “Jail lawsuit plaintiff urges tax repeal” in the Sept. 29-Oct. 5, 2004, issue of The Rock River Times).

To date, Chatmon has not received any compensation for his cooperation in the lawsuit. According to a Sept. 24, 2004, letter from Chatmon’s attorney, John F. Heckinger Jr., Chatmon will not be paid until after the jail is constructed.

Jailing drug offenders

Much of the alleged overcrowding in the jail is due to cocaine, marijuana and other drug-related arrests since the early 1990s. In Rockford, approximately 75 percent of the crimes police deal with are related to drug trafficking, which range from violent crime to property crime.

As reported in the April14-20, 2004, issue of The Rock River Times, Rockford is in the midst of a heroin epidemic that began in the late 1990s. However, cocaine remains a much larger problem than heroin, according to treatment admission numbers from drug treatment facilities and health care providers (see table on page A1).

In data that closely reflects cocaine and heroin treatment admission numbers, and marijuana arrests, the average daily population in the jail was 360 inmates in 1994 and skyrocketed to 710 inmates in 2003. However, that population plummeted to 454 in March of this year in response to goals set forth in Chatmon’s ongoing federal lawsuit.

Incarceration rates

The existing jail has a capacity of 394 prisoners, which was built in 1975. The new jail will have a capacity of at least 1,212 inmates when it opens late next year or in early to mid-2007. Combined with the new and existing incarceration facilities, Winnebago County will have the ability to house 1,697 inmates, which includes 91 prisoners in the satellite jail.

On the average, an additional 1,000 inmates from Winnebago County occupy space in the state’s penitentiaries. This means if all the local correction facilities are filled, and another 1,000 inmates from the County occupy state prisons, Winnebago County will have an incarceration rate of about 940 inmates per 100,000 residents shortly after 2007.

This compares with apartheid-era South Africa’s incarceration rate of 750 inmates for every 100,000 citizens. Despite that statistic, few public officials have publicly expressed concern about the County’s rapidly increasing incarceration rate. However, many public officials frequently cite the County’s high crime rate as a reason to build the new jail.

What hasn’t been cited by the public officials is that County’s crime rate, especially the violent crime rate, has been decreasing for at least 10 years.

Mass incarceration

Logli attributed the decrease in crime rate to mass incarceration of offenders. Other crime experts disagree with that analysis.

While mass incarceration may result in a temporary decrease in the crime rate, crime expert Dr. Michael Hazlett warned Winnebago County officials in 2003 that such efforts will likely contribute to a long-term increase in the crime rate.

Hazlett is a professor of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University, and is a former Texas jail inspector. He toured Winnebago County’s jail in 2002, and explained that jails and prisons are “Crime University” where inmates share information about how to become more successful criminals.

Hazlett said the end result is that when former inmates are released back into the community, they are prone to return to criminal behavior if a support network is not in place to work with the individuals. Such a network would include jail alternative programs.

Addressing the topic of mass incarceration, which Logli advocates, Dr. Richard Rosenfeld wrote in the February 2004 issue of Scientific American that: “mass incarceration reduces crime in the short run—but at great monetary and social costs—and may contribute to the chronically high levels of crime in those communities from which prisoners are disproportionally drawn and to which they return.”

Evaluating outcomes

As to monitoring the results of the first year of jail alternative spending, John Sweeney, Winnebago County Board member and chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said County
employees collected information on a quarterly basis that detailed the success or failure of the programs.

He added that the information was then given to County Board members and appointees to the County’s Crime and Public Safety Commission. Sweeney said the information was used to help determine whether the applicant agencies were eligible for more funding.

Knodle said his group offered the County a list of “hard outcomes” that the County could use to determine whether goals and objectives were achieved. He also questioned whether similar standards were being applied to other agencies.

“You have to have a system of evaluating what you’re accomplishing with these programs. And that should include, by the way, existing programs like work release and day reporting,” Knodle said.

However, critical empirical data for analysis has historically been in short supply when it comes to crime in Winnebago County.

For example, the County’s criminal justice system has no tracking mechanism to determine how quickly criminal cases are moved through the system. If such a mechanism were in place, officials could use that information to identify bottlenecks in the criminal justice system. Such bottlenecks can result in needless jail overcrowding (see “Should the jail be downsized?” article in the June 23-29, 2004, issue).

While County officials seek ways to fairly distribute money for jail alternative programs, Knodle waits to see if those same officials will act on his suggestions for more accountability and increased funding beyond the small percentage the County is offering. His hope, and Chatmon’s, is for a lower crime rate, and an end to alleged overcrowding in the jail.

From the Nov. 16-22, 2005, issue

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