Viewpoint: Justice system demands maximum efforts

Viewpoint: Justice system demands maximum efforts

By Joe Baker

Justice system demands maximum efforts

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

It is no secret that Winnebago County is facing severe overcrowding and poor conditions in its jail and that it is facing multiple legal actions as a result of that situation.

In an effort to deal with that and related problems, the county is undertaking a study of the entire criminal justice system, not just the jail.

The jail population, according to a report given the county board’s Public Safety Committee last week, has grown at a rate of nearly 9 percent annually from 1988 till last year.

The main jail was designed for 173 inmates. It has been packed to the walls with a self-rated capacity of 393, and recently the population peaked at more than 570.

The satellite jail at Church and Jefferson streets has an additional 96 beds.

Most of the people in the jail are awaiting trial or other disposition of their cases. “Out of all the inmates,” said Sheriff Richard Meyers, “I’d say we’re lucky to have 40 that have been sentenced. About one-third of our inmates are on misdemeanor charges.”

Other sources suggest the percentage of misdemeanor detainees could be as high as 75 percent.

The sheriff believes more bricks and mortar, as is being discussed, won’t solve the problem. “You can’t build your way out of this problem,” he said. “There’s no doubt we need more beds, but we shouldn’t build one more bed until we have some answers.”

The Public Safety Committee, headed by Mary Ann Aiello, is looking at a possible referendum in the fall seeking a quarter-cent sales tax. Aiello said that idea needs more study and depends on how many beds are being proposed.

Sheriff Meyers believes ways must be found to reduce the number of people who must go to jail. “We must think about ways of not jailing some of the misdemeanor cases,” he said. “Could we speed the court process somehow?” He said the sheriff has the least say in all this because he is charged with holding prisoners until the courts say what is to be done with them.

Meyers has proposed a series of small committees to study various aspects of the

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problem. That would include looking at alternative programs to reduce the population, utilizing a population control board for oversight.

Aiello said the search for answers not only will look at population control, but also will examine site requirements, financial needs and bed space.

All of it will require a sizeable increase in bureaucracy, physical facilities and cost. Aiello says figures aren’t available, but the report she gave the committee last week states preliminary figures were presented last March and re-examined in May. The politicians just don’t want to tell you right now.

The county is talking about another 71,000 square feet of facilities plus renovating 43,000 square feet of existing space. All of this means big bucks.

Speaking of big bucks, the average salary of a circuit judge in this county is $136,500 annually. For that kind of money, we think the judges can do a bit more work than four to six hours a day. How about an initial period of 8 to 10 hours a day to clear this backlog up? It would help clear the crowded dockets and trim the number of people who have to sit in the jail for three or four months or longer until the state’s attorney’s office gets around to their cases. Our new Chief Judge Gerald Grubb needs to put the pressure on Paul Logli’s office and the other judges.

This new plan being presented by the county will ultimately mean more judges as well as other court officers and support staff. Can we afford more than $100,000 plus individuals to warm the benches for a few scant hours daily?

It is time to devise means of breaking the grip of the bureaucratic police-judicial-prison-industrial complex. Taxpayers deserve more consideration than they appear to be getting.

If we’re going to project system needs for 15 years, planning needs to be careful, thorough and cost-effective. As Aiello says: “It’s gonna be costly.” Today it costs $50 a day to keep someone in jail.

What happens if, for some reason, Winnebago County fails to address this situation? “The federal courts could cap the (jail) facility if there’s no action,” Meyers said.

That could limit the jail population to about 80 percent or around 300 inmates. It also could cost the county to lease bed space in somebody else’s jail; a practice that could carry an annual tab of $4.5 million by current estimates.

It also could clog up legal processes, delaying trials further, put greater stress on the system staff, worsen security flaws and, of course, create even worse problems in the jail.

The citizens committee meets again Dec. 19. Their work is cut out for them. As Meyers said: “I think the county’s done a decent job, but there’s been a tremendous amount of Band Aids.”

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