Jail issue has no easy answer

County officials have their hands full trying to figure out the best, least expensive way to run a jail.

Champaign County's jail — how big it should be, whom it should hold and how much it should cost to build and run — has been an ongoing issue here for more than 35 years.

If the California jail consultant hired to advise local officials is correct, it will take another 18 months to resolve the latest issues posed by the county's two confinement facilities — one downtown and its satellite facility in east Urbana.

Although the details and costs have yet to be nailed down, let alone approved, physical changes in one or both facilities and/or the creation of a new space will almost be assuredly part of the solution.

Just what that solution will be depends on the ongoing re-engineering of the county's law enforcement system.

It's a revamp of the process that begins with police/citizen contact and continues on to jail admission, legal process, trial and punishment.

Consultant Alan Kalmanoff is correct when he points out just how costly it is to run a jail and how important it is that only those who need to be there are there. Disagreement may arise as to who should be held for how long, but it's hard to argue with the proposition that serious thought should go into the process.

His report, which is available online at the county's website here, goes into great detail in identifying the various problems in the process and in outlining potential solutions. But Kalmanoff has made a point to leave it to local officials to make the big decisions without any specific push from him.

Of all the issues that confront the county board, a handful stick out:

— What's to be done with chronically mentally ill individuals who engage in criminal behavior as a consequence of their affliction? Given the fallout of the de-institutionalization movement, only those individuals who are a threat to themselves or others can be committed under civil law to a mental hospital. That has left local police and county jail employees in the role of de facto mental health workers.

It should come as no surprise that county jails face a severe challenge caused by a failed mental health system that intentionally leaves sick individuals to fend for themselves and, consequently, come into contact with the law.

— The space problem is not so much about the total number of beds but the number of individuals who fall under different classification — women, the mentally ill, inmates prone to violence, etc. They must be kept separate, and that requires sufficient separate space not currently available.

— Arrest policies that lead police to take individuals into custody when jail might not be necessary. This ranges from relatively minor illegal behavior on campus that could be better addressed by a notice to appear in court to mandatory arrest situations that require police to take someone into custody, like domestic violence cases.

Kalmanoff's recommendations focus heavily on statistics-driven analysis that results in classifying offenders as high-, medium- and low-risk; the premise is that it would be better if the low- and medium-risk offenders were not held in jail.

That kind of analysis always has its place. But this process is more art than science. Low risk does not mean no risk, and the consequences of misjudgment could be severe.

That said, we remain supportive of this effort. If there is a smarter, safer, less expensive way of maintaining the county jail, or the entire criminal justice system, it's our view that the public will enthusiastically support it.

With the exception of the most heinous crimes, the criminal justice system is about far more than punishment. Properly run, it's about holding people who run afoul of the law responsible in a way that serves the best long-term interests of both victim and accused.

Considered in that light, Kalmanoff's analysis is not without fault.

He contends the county "needs a better definition of who it wants to put in cages," a reference that trivializes the issues surrounding incarceration by suggesting that the mere thought of it is inhuman and unfair.

He also refers in an insulting fashion to what he calls "traditional justice conservatism," defined by him as a "lock them up and throw away the key" attitude.

That kind of mindless approach has not been advocated by anyone we've heard address the issue, particularly since a majority of jail inmates are in custody awaiting trial, not serving a sentence after being convicted.

What Kalmanoff characterizes as a key issue is, in our mind, a non-issue. It is ill-advised of him to tar those who might have questions or concerns about some of his recommendations with such careless language.

No one should underestimate the difficulty of putting every step in the criminal justice system under a microscope and deciding if or how it could be done better. It will require hard work by all the major players in the system — police, prosecutors, judges, jail officials. The good news is that there could be a significant reward at the end of the line, one that serves the entire community well.

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