Group: Pretrial services program is a dud
Memo resulting from 5-week test asks county board not to fund it
URBANA — Champaign County court officials are recommending that the county board not spend money on a new pretrial services program that had been included in the county's budget for the fiscal year beginning Dec. 1.
A five-week test of the program, begun Sept. 23, found that it was able to help only one person out of 238 defendants in custody during the period.
If the county board goes along with the recommendation contained in a memo from Presiding Judge Tom Difanis, court services director Joe Gordon, Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum and court administrator Roger Holland, it will mean that the $122,760 program ends before it ever formally started.
The pretrial services program had been recommended by both a community justice task force and by a Berkeley, Calif.-based consultant the county board hired to assess the county's criminal justice system.
But the test study of the program found that it would be "cost-prohibitive."
"The data (show) that the efforts made by the public defender's staff and the state's attorney's staff to expedite cases had a significant impact on the number of defendants in custody," the report said. "The state's attorney's office and the public defender's office are committed to continuing to prioritize in-custody cases and will work together to resolve these cases efficiently and appropriately."
County board members contacted Friday said they were surprised by the results of the study.
"I was certainly surprised," said Urbana Democrat Chris Alix, deputy board chairman for finance. "I'm glad we tried it, but it sounds like there's probably a better use for that money."
"I hadn't heard any report on where this was going," said Champaign Democrat Josh Hartke, a leading advocate for more spending on criminal justice programs. "To me five weeks is where we hear a preliminary progress report rather than someone saying, 'Well it's just not working. We're going to bail on it.'"
"It did surprise me. But I'm not immersed in that area of the justice system," said board Chairman Alan Kurtz, also a Champaign Democrat. "When they showed me the results and explained it, how they worked through the system over five weeks, it turned out that only one person was eligible, because so many others already had been released. I think we have a very efficient program here."
Alix said he believes county board members will accept the findings of the report and eliminate the pretrial services program before it even starts.
"If they say they have piloted it for five weeks and quickly came to the conclusion that it would not result in much benefit because it was duplicative with efforts already happening, I think the board will accept that statement at face value.
"The more significant question may be what the county board decides to do with the money in the draft budget. My recommendation is going to be that that be moved into the budget line for programs from the justice task force. I would guess that the most likely use for that money would be for minor modifications to the satellite jail to address some of the deficiencies in the booking area and to free up some room for mental health and medical cases there."
Kurtz said he'd like to see the money go into modifications of the satellite jail and for a "re-entry" program for people recently released from either state prison or the county jail.
"I'm sure we'll be looking at both issues because they are both priorities. We have no choice," Kurtz said.
Hartke said he wanted to review the study before determining what to do with the money that was to have gone to pretrial services.
"Do we really feel that five weeks is enough of a trial period to declare it a failure? If the idea is to not waste another $120,000 that they think might be better spent on a more efficient justice system, I can hear that. But I don't know that five weeks is enough time for a trial period on this program. I hate the idea that within six weeks of the issuance of the report we're already declaring one major part of it potentially a failure."
If the money is freed for spending elsewhere, he said he favored it going toward a re-entry program, education for inmates and mental health spending.
"As far as revamping the jail, I am absolutely 100 percent behind the idea of getting the women inmates out of the downtown jail. If that means $50,000 for partitions, I think we can find the money in there. But if it means adding a $2 million pod at the satellite jail, we'll have to look at a different way of doing this."