New policy will likely inflate jail population

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112308898719188.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jeff Havens’, ‘Model of the new Winnebago County jail along Rockton Avenue. St. Mary's Oratory steeple in the foreground.’);

Some misdemeanor suspects will no longer be issued notices to appear in court by police agencies in Winnebago County. The policy change issued by the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office within the last six weeks means suspected offenders will be taken directly to jail by police officers for processing, instead of being issued a notice.

The result will temporarily take officers off the street, and will increase the population of the jail, according to Greg Lindmark, deputy chief of the Rockford Police Department. However, Lindmark emphasized he supported the policy change because “in the long run, it will serve as a deterrent” to crime when word spreads among criminals about the policy change.

Lindmark estimated his agency issued approximately 1,100 notices to appear in 2004. Lindmark confirmed the policy went into effect July 1 that said suspected misdemeanor offenders, such as shoplifters, drunk drivers, disorderly conduct suspects and petty thieves be taken to jail for processing, rather than being issued a notice on site of the alleged offense.

Lindmark wasn’t sure how long the previous policy of issuing notices existed before the July 1 change, but he thought it was in place for many years.

The Rock River Times requested a copy of the memorandum July 28 through the Freedom of Information Act. However, representatives from the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office did not respond to that request by time of publication.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli and First Deputy State’s Attorney Chuck Prorok were not available for comment on why the policy change was implemented and how it will affect an ongoing federal jail overcrowding lawsuit.

The pending federal lawsuit requires the average daily population in the jail decrease to 400 inmates by the end of this month. The daily population was 454 inmates in March, and has risen to more than 500 this summer.

The Winnebago County Board has already authorized no more than $100,000 for housing inmates in other local jails to decrease the population. Generally, renting jail-bed space costs between $40-$70 per day for each inmate. At the $40 per day level, only about seven inmates could be housed in another facility for one year, until the new and vastly larger Winnebago County Jail opens sometime in 2007 or sooner.

Jail lawsuits

Winnebago County has been the target of two federal jail overcrowding lawsuits since 1994—both were filed by Rockford attorney John F. Heckinger Jr. The most recent 2000 lawsuit was cited by Logli in 2002 as the primary reason voters needed to approve a sales tax hike to primarily pay for constructing the new $160 million, 1,212-bed jail, which is being built in downtown Rockford.

The jail tax was approved, and went into effect on July 1, 2003, and has collected more than $50 million from consumers during its first two years. The County’s sales tax increased from 6.25 to 7.25 percent.

On behalf of the inmates, Heckinger alleged in the lawsuits the jail was too crowded, which created potentially dangerous and unhealthful conditions for inmates and jail staff. However, evidence to support or refute those claims has never been the subject of a trial.

Instead, the County agreed to a settlement in 1997 that stipulated a three-year moratorium on further lawsuits. When the moratorium expired in 2000, Heckinger filed the existing jail overcrowding lawsuit, which has been stayed while a new and vastly larger jail is constructed.

When completed, the new jail will be more than three times the capacity of the existing jail, up from 394 beds to at least 1,212 beds. County leaders said the new jail was an economic boon for the area, which will spawn further development.

Conversely, many business people in the River District, who have worked hard to rebuild downtown, are concerned that the new jail will damage the image, traffic flow and businesses on the west side of downtown , particularly if federal prisoners are housed there. The minority community is concerned that the new facility will have a warehousing effect on them, since many in their community do not have the means to post bail or hire attorney. Others are concerned that the new jail releases pressure on the court system to provide a speedy trial process.

Frank Schier, editor and publisher, contributed to this article.

From the Aug. 3-9, 2005, issue

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