URBANA – Champaign County has come a long way from the day in February 1981 when then-Sheriff Joe Brown set up cots on the third floor of the courthouse to make his point that he needed more space for prisoners.
For a change, the jail is undercrowded.
Earlier this month, the county hit a "recent-memory low" of 175 prisoners, said Sheriff Dan Walsh.
"They have gone down," Sheriff Dan Walsh said Friday of the inmate numbers. "On Friday, May 12, we hit a recent-memory low of 175 bedded prisoners. Last week we were in the 170 to 180s. (Friday) morning we had 200 bedded prisoners, 12 people in the book-in area and 56 on home confinement, all of whom would be traffic."
The combined total that can be housed at the downtown Urbana jail, opened in 1980, and the satellite jail on Lierman Avenue, which marks its 10th birthday this fall, is 309, a figure that has often been exceeded.
"We have cooperation from everyone involved," Presiding Judge Tom Difanis said of the concerted effort being made by the justice system to keep the jail population in check. "The state's attorney, public defender, the sheriff's office, the court system. We're making sure we move the cases expeditiously so that the people who are incarcerated are there appropriately as opposed to some who can't come up with $250 (bond) to get out of jail."
The numbers have been so manageable lately that Walsh and Capt. Jim Young, who oversees the jails, have closed certain areas of the downtown jail, which has allowed for needed maintenance, such as repairing plumbing and lighting and painting – things not easily accomplished when inmates are present.
A dormitory area at the downtown jail that Young said housed 18 "cream of the crop" inmates has been closed about two months. Because it was in a remote area of the jail, correctional officers had to walk farther to reach it and go through several security doors. And another cell block with 17 bunks has been shut down. Having both closed has relieved a burden on the staff, he noted.
When Difanis took over as presiding judge in early 2004 after the retirement of former Judge J.G. Townsend, the number of pending felony cases on the monthly pretrial list was "perilously close to 900," he said. As of the May 24 pretrial conference call, the number was just under 500.
"If everybody works together, we can get the job done," Difanis said.
For example, on Thursday morning, of seven inmates who appeared before Difanis for guilty pleas, four were sentenced to probation and three to prison, meaning all would be moved out of the county jail. The cases – all public defender clients – were resolved with a speed previously uncharacteristic of the system. Their crimes had been committed on or since March 2, one as recently as May 16.
About six months ago, Difanis decreed that in-custody clients will be brought to trial within 60 days unless there is a valid reason to continue the case, such as the unavailability of lab results.
Additionally, with the start of the continuous jury system set for June 13, he is requiring attorneys to put all requests for continuances in writing for a judge to review. No longer are the judges accepting the word of prosecutors and defense attorneys in open court that they have agreed to continue a case.
Although the latter rule has caused grumbling among attorneys for the extra work it creates, Difanis is adamant it will keep things moving.
"It will force (the lawyers) to look at the file, assess it and make a determination. If we allow them to continue and put it off, we're just enabling them. Since I deal with addicts on a regular basis, I know exactly what's going on," Difanis said.
State's Attorney Julia Rietz said her office is "enthusiastic" about the changes, especially the continuous jury term.
"From an organization standpoint, I think it makes perfect sense, mostly from the direct assignment to a courtroom aspect. It's sort of like an assembly line process, where instead of everybody doing everything, you have cases directly assigned (to a specific judge, prosecutor and public defender). Everybody knows who they're working with. Communication can be better," she observed.
"It is good for our feet to be held to the fire, too. We have victims and witnesses who need their matters resolved," she said.
Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum is also on board with the concept of getting people out of jail but he's a bit concerned that the emphasis on in-custody cases may cause the out-of-custody cases to balloon.
As for sizing up cases and moving them, Rosenbaum said there are only "so many hours in the day."
"(Difanis) is complaining about us not talking to our clients and the state not making better (plea) offers. When you have clients who don't make or keep appointments and just show the day of court and you have 30 seconds with them before court, it's difficult to know in advance what they want to do. We encourage our clients to keep in touch. We want to go over reports with them. But ultimately, it's their responsibility to contact us, not for us to track them down. We have high caseloads and a lot of demands on our time," he said.
Another benefit of having the jail numbers down, from Rosenbaum's perspective, is that the sheriff is more willing to keep inmates who have Department of Corrections parole holds on them in jail while they wait for trial on new charges, rather than shipping them back to the penitentiary, which is his right.
Rosenbaum said once an inmate is returned to prison, it's difficult to communicate with him, prolonging the case.
Walsh said he is willing to work with the public defenders on keeping clients in the jail unless it's obvious that a case could take months to resolve.
"DNA is backlogged eight months (at the state crime lab) and it's five to six months on drugs, so we did take one shipment of inmates back," he said, adding that attorneys were consulted before clients were sent back.
While Walsh is happy about the current state of the jail population, he's also cognizant of how fast things can change.
"It may increase with warm weather coming, because you get more drinking and more problems," he said.