County board to study final report on jail

URBANA — An "action plan" for improvements to Champaign County's criminal justice system calls for more carefully managing the system, and adopting "better targeted sanctioning," short of stays in the county jail, for low-level offenders.

But while the study repeatedly criticized conditions in the 33-year-old downtown Urbana jail — including noting that its condition "raised constitutional questions regarding inmates, particularly women and mental health inmates" — it avoided the politically touchy issue of whether to raze, remodel or add onto either the downtown jail or the satellite facility in east Urbana.

"Because facility needs will change even more in the near term due to policy and practice reform in the areas of classification, use of the day reporting center, and major changes in the processing and diverting of mental health offenders and sentencing," said the authors of the study, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Institute for Law & Policy Planning, "this study makes no final facility choices among the options proposed, and defers to Sheriff's Office ongoing planning to determine the best of the proposed options to meet needs."

Champaign County Board members will formally review the 272-page ILPP report in a study session scheduled for 6 p.m. next Tuesday at the Brookens Administrative Center, 1776 E. Washington St., U. Members of the public will have time to comment on the study, and to ask questions of the executive director of ILPP, Alan Kalmanoff, at the end of the study session.

Another section of the report — for which the county so far has paid about $118,000 — recommends using the county's quarter-cent sales tax, approved by voters in 1998 to help pay for a new courthouse and youth detention center, to fund the suggested changes to the criminal justice system.

Tapping the quarter-cent tax, Kalmanoff wrote, "is needed to prevent waste of the study effort and to capitalize on large savings that can be achieved. Jurisdictions nationally have chosen this path of 'decarceration,' changing policies to prioritize keeping people out of jail yet punish more effectively and save resources.

"This is now an established best practice to drastically minimize the use of facilities, promote intact families and give juveniles the best chance of not engaging in criminal activity."

The sales tax, he continued, "must be tapped to jump-start many initiatives recommended in this report, not only to improving facilities."

Still, in numerous places the report decries conditions in the county's correctional facilities:

— "The Downtown Jail suffers from serious structural and mechanical issues, from serious lack of maintenance and cost-prohibitive staffing," one section of the report says.

— "Champaign County suffers from structurally and mechanically deficient jail facilities that encourage use of outdated and inefficient modes of supervision. Neither of the jail facilities currently offers the flexible range of housing options needed for the range of offenders that a jail typically handles," said another section. "Facility maintenance has also been seriously deferred, requiring difficult decisions due to the significant step up in costs required to allow the jails to meet standards."

The report says, however, that the satellite jail "is suitable for expansion to accommodate staffing and housing needs and is more modern and better designed" than the downtown Urbana jail.

It says that closing the downtown jail and moving all law enforcement operations to the satellite "presents a more cost-effective option" than attempting to remodel the downtown facility. It also says that two other buildings near the satellite jail — the old Champaign County Nursing Home, now used by the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, and the Juvenile Detention Center — could be "repurposed as an expansion of the jail facilities."

Overall, says the report, Champaign County is "a very safe place to live," with a drop in index crimes reported and in adult arrests over the last 10 years, even as the population is growing.

"There is no evidence that the number of serious felony crimes, arrests and filings have been increasing," the report said. The average daily population at the jails peaked in 2004 (339 inmates). Last month, according to a separate report from the sheriff's office, the average was 281.

Among other findings and recommendations:

— A criminal justice executive council, "with the full voting, moral and budgetary support of the county board and county administrator," should lead the implementation of the ILPP recommendations. Its members should include the presiding judge, sheriff, state's attorney, county administrator, police chiefs of Champaign and Urbana, county board chair or budget committee chair, and a University of Illinois vice chancellor.

— Most of those booked into the jail are charged with low-level offenses, and about 63 percent of inmates are minimum and medium risk.

— The county should consider reinstituting its adult diversion program, to reduce costs.

"There is little doubt that a substantial number of cases on a recent arraignment calendar, over half (about 25 percent personal disputes, and about a third marijuana, paraphernalia or alcohol possession) would be well suited for handling through either a dispute resolution or a drug and alcohol program, as discussed elsewhere in this report. In many other counties, nationally, these cases would not be charged through the formal process," the report said.

— There is a disproportionate percentage of African-Americans being charged with minor crimes, such as possession of 30 grams of marijuana, jaywalking, "vehicular noise," and resisting an officer. Although the absolute number of arrests has decreased, the proportion of African-Americans arrested has increased.

— The county should focus on reducing recidivism; 44.8 percent of offenders on parole are rearrested within three years of release from state prison.

— The public defender's office "is overly dependent on the court for its funding as well as its budget and administrative priorities," and suffers "from lack of an investigator and mobile computer capability to take notes or make recordings, limited computer and (court records management system) access, and no paralegals. Attorneys must do everything themselves, which is not a wise use of time of a more expensive and likely less clerically adept employee. This pattern of occupying a secondary stature organizationally is quite the exception."

— Nearly a quarter of the offenders who move through the jail are female. "They are placed in a facility where they are unable to meet their needs, and monitored at an unnecessary security level," said the report. "As described in the Facilities section of this report, the Downtown Jail is extremely poorly maintained and does not allow for adequate delivery of medical and mental health care."

— The demographic makeup of the county's judiciary "is more reflective of Champaign County in the 1950s than it is of the more diverse population in present-day Champaign." All 11 of the county's circuit and associate judges are white, and nine are male.

This can lead to "group demographics that have become quite different from those of the broader community, which is subject to larger economic, political, and cultural forces that shape it. In a modern democracy, this is likely to gradually lead to a gap in understanding between the courts and some members of the public it serves."

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