Viewpoint: Jail refrain a familiar one

Viewpoint: Jail refrain a familiar one

By By Joe Baker, Senior Editor

When it comes to the subject of a new jail, the tune is the same old song, just a different verse. Those familiar with the history of this issue have heard it all before.

One of them put it this way in an unsigned letter: “It seems to me that debating whether to build a new jail, and if so, how big, is like arguing about whether to buy Excedrin, Bayer or Anacin for the migraines, rather than talking about how to cure the headaches. It is diverting attention from the real issue, which is what is the county’s overall plan for the criminal justice system, and the philosophy or mission which drives our effort to curb crime, delinquency and its effects.”

So far as a comprehensive plan for the criminal justice system, there isn’t one and probably never has been. Like many other topics in these parts, we talk about them quite a lot but never get around to actually doing anything about them.

A favorite ploy of politicians, whenever a problem crops up, is to appoint a committee to study the matter in hopes it will go away. We’ve done plenty of that where the subject of a jail is concerned.

As our letter writer expressed it: “Even though the threat of a federal takeover of the jail has been around for at least 10 years, it has not happened. In large part, various committees and bodies have met, agonized, and bemoaned the fact that nothing seems to change, yet very few programs have been implemented, and certainly no far-reaching system mission and philosophy has been developed.”

Clear back in 1982, the county board got all swelled up over this matter and appointed something called the Criminal Justice Fact Finding Committee. The group was chaired by Dr. Dorothy Delman, a professor at Rockford College.

Dr. Delman said the group was created to study what was then considered a crisis in the Winnebago County Criminal Justice System, curtailed service to the public because of severe budget cuts.

After 10 years of study, the committee was no closer to a solution than when it started and concluded even more study was needed. By this time, mind you, we had already had several studies, looking at such things as what was causing the jail population to increase; how to streamline county government; an examination of county facilities; the need for change in the way juveniles were handled by the criminal justice system; caseload and judicial projections; a model community corrections act, and many more.

Besides all this, Dr. Delman’s task force reviewed more than 175 publications, reports and documents and interviewed local officials.

Among this body’s findings were: violent crimes rose 215 percent in this county between 1972 and 1989. Property crimes rose 85 percent. Felony cases more than doubled between 1978 and 1990 and the average daily population of the county jail rose 74 percent between 1982 and 1990. The jail was designed for 351 inmates and held 335 inmates for an average during this period.

One significant finding was that taxpayers in this county in 1988 spent about $20,000 per prisoner, while the statewide average cost for the time was $15,329.

Professor Delman said the work of the task force resulted in a series of specific findings and recommendations which, apparently, were never heard of again.

In 1994 attorney Elmer Rudy became chairman of what was called the Winnebago County Criminal Justice Planning Council. Rudy’s group had essentially the same task as its predecessor to recommend ways and means of improving and enhancing the county’s criminal justice system, not just studying the jail.

Rudy, in a letter to Chief Judge Harris Agnew, State’s Attorney Paul Logli and Sheriff Don Gasparini, in November of 1994, observed: “The referendum for an expanded jail was defeated on a 2 to 1 vote in November 1993. This tells me there is little chance that you will be getting substantial additional resources to provide punishment for crime.”

Rudy further observed that the public then appeared to view crime as a major problem and expected the local government to do something about it. He noted felony arrests from 1988 through 1992 were up 80 percent and misdemeanor arrests were up 30 percent in the same period.

In 1992, he said, there were 1,048 persons convicted of felonies, but only 224 went to prison. The rest were dealt with right here with “the vast majority receiving probation.”

Rudy’s letter went on to say: “I suggest to you that the solution is not to work harder, but to work smarter. I do not see any of you spending any time on making structural changes in the present system, or devising a new system.”

Rudy was speaking as an individual in making these remarks, but his council did its job and reached several conclusions and recommendations as a group. Those findings were put to paper. What happened to them?

Rudy said in that letter: “In July of this year (1994), the Planning Council adopted a resolution recommending certain changes in procedure to enhance the criminal justice process, which pretty much disappeared without a trace.”

More recently, we had a Blueprint for Rockford, initiated by Charles Box, the former mayor. It included a public safety task force and published reports which made a number of recommendations. Nothing seemed to result from all of this.

Next came a citizens committee appointed by Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn. The end result is a proposal for a new jail at $130 million estimated cost.

So here we are again. Singing the same old song and getting nowhere, like a dog chasing its tail. John Schou chaired the Jail Capacity Management Board in 1993. He wrote to the board in a memo, stating: “Sometimes I think we cannot see the forest for the trees. We’re so caught up in our day to day routines, facing problems and crisis daily. We seldom get time, or take time, to step back and look at the whole system.”

That hasn’t changed. The question is: why should the taxpayers vote for an inadequate and short-sighted “solution” that fails to attack the root causes of the problem and just empties our pockets?

If you thought the total price tag for the deseg lawsuit was outrageous, here’s the real kicker: with interest over 30 years, the $130 million dollar jail will actually cost taxpayers almost a half a billion dollars! Why haven’t the proponents of the jail brought that lovely figure to our attention?

That answer seems obvious at this point.

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