Tom Kacich: County nearing start of criminal justice system overhaul

It's taken about two years, countless meetings and a nearly $150,000 study, but Champaign County is about to embark on what could be a major reworking of its criminal justice system.

If it achieves the ideal, it would mean fewer people in jail, better treatment for the mentally ill who now end up in jail, lower costs to the county and perhaps even fewer broken families and lives damaged by incarceration.

That's the ideal. The reality may end up being something less.

But it's something constructive, which is a lot more than the dreadful Congress or Illinois General Assembly can claim these days.

Changes to the county's criminal justice system already have begun. Others could be incorporated into the county budget for the year beginning Dec. 1. County board members will discuss suggested revisions at a study session Tuesday night. Actual votes on changes will come in October and November.

"The initial issue has to be facilities. That's what started this whole discussion," said board Chairman Alan Kurtz, a Champaign Democrat. "How do we improve our (jail) facilities for safety and security? How do we make them efficient? The cost of having two separate jails is weighing on our budget. That's what started this conversation. Then it expanded into how can we bring efficiency into the entire justice system."

Although the $144,865 Institute for Law & Policy Planning justice system assessment didn't recommend facility changes, the report dropped plenty of hints saying that the county should close the downtown jail and "add segregation capacity, special-needs housing and the capacity to handle mental health and dangerous offenders" to the satellite jail on Urbana's east side.

Champaign Democrat Josh Hartke said he believes the county should put somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000 into a facilities maintenance fund "so we can start to do the maintenance that we haven't done."

How to spend the money from the county's quarter-cent public safety sales tax — now yielding about $4.5 million a year — will be central to the discussion. For now most of that money goes to paying off construction bonds on the courthouse and juvenile detention center. Another $891,000 of it is budgeted for utility costs at the courthouse, jails and detention center.

There has been some talk of diverting the entire $891,000 to new programs suggested in the ILPP report and by a separate, community justice task force.

That's not likely, said Champaign Democrat Michael Richards, a member of the county board and the task force.

"As far as the $800,000," he said, "I have not gotten the sense that the county has the intention of taking all that money out at once. That's more of a medium-term goal."

But there are some ideas on the table that could be folded into next year's county budget.

Kurtz said he'd like to try to get federal funds to work on a "re-entry" program, aimed at reducing recidivism in the county; 44.8 percent of offenders on parole are arrested again within three years, according to ILPP.

Hartke said he wants to find $50,000 in the county budget for a re-entry coordinator, and about $100,000 for a social worker and an investigator for the public defender's office.

Richards cited the same programs and another one: "beefing up the drug court."

"I think I am hearing a commitment to put some money into these things," he said. "Some we can start on Dec. 1. Some are going to take a while."

The other county board members could bring up other suggestions, they said.

"Lots of people have been asking for things and obviously the pile of 'asks' is higher than the pile we can pay," Hartke said. "But budgets are priorities and I'm hopeful the Democratic caucus and the Republican caucus can come together and meet the requests of the diverse population of this county."

The ILPP report scolded past county boards for ignoring the criminal justice system and its facilities, although that blame deserves to be spread more broadly, including governors and legislators.

"The community is damaged by the past refusal to adequately invest in services for populations that do not belong in maximum security cages," wrote Alan Kalmanoff, the executive director of ILPP. "The county board must fix not spending money on prevention and programs or facilities. Not doing so will lead to high expenses for ... law enforcement and for bloated operations without improving public safety."

Ten years from now it will be interesting to assess how many of Kalmanoff's recommendations were adopted, and whether they resulted in improved public safety and reduced costs.

"As Kalmanoff said, we're the ones who live here," said Richards. "We're the ones who have to take out of that study what we think is important and figure out what are priorities are."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesday and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at tkacich@news-gazette.com.

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pattsi wrote on September 29, 2013 at 10:09 am

Public input at the 1 Oct committee of the whole finance meeting is important and welcome. This meeting begins at 6 P, at Brookens The public has the opportunity to speak at the top of the agenda. If you can not participate in person, share your thoughts with your county board member.