What county needs to do to improve criminal justice

What county needs to do to improve criminal justice

By Lynn Branham

The Champaign County Jail reminds me of potholes. A citizen reports a cavernous pothole in a street. The pothole is filled in, only to reappear a few months or a year later. The "quick fix" is quick, but not a fix.

In 1980, a new jail was constructed in downtown Urbana. In my professional work, I have reviewed conditions in several hundred prisons and jails across the country. I concur with the almost universal view of those who have witnessed the conditions at this jail: The expenditure of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money has yielded what in effect is a dungeon. I wouldn't put a dog in it.

In 1996, the county spent millions of dollars, once more, on jail construction. A well-respected consultant retained by the county has now told us that the construction plan was, from the get-go, inadequate. This facility, for example, was not designed to house certain mentally ill individuals safely and humanely.

This history of grave and costly mistakes should give all of us — government officials and the public — pause. Great pause. We have a choice. We can learn from our mistakes. Or we can repeat them.

So what are our mistakes? Above all, we have failed to recognize that the infrastructure of a cost-effective and humane criminal-justice system has nothing to do with pouring concrete. Nor is the infrastructure a community-based program or two tacked on as an accompaniment or alternative to jail construction.

The infrastructure of an advanced criminal-justice system, rather, has four dimensions: planning, priorities informed by research, public education and engagement, and principles grounded on restorative justice. Viewed in this light, the infrastructure of the county's criminal-justice system is, despite some strides forward, still crumbling.

The county, for example, lacks a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to foster systemwide planning that encompasses all facets of the criminal-justice system. The National Association of Counties is working to establish CJCCs nationwide, and they are now commonplace across the country.

Another notable deficiency is that criminal-justice-related spending priorities in this county are often not informed by research. In fact, spending choices are sometimes in direct disregard of research findings about what does and doesn't work in criminal justice.

One example illustrates this structural flaw.

The vast majority of people confined in the local jail have not been convicted of any crime. The Champaign County Community Justice Task Force on which I had the privilege to serve recommended the establishment of a comprehensive pretrial-services program in this county. Pretrial-services programs are designed to limit to the extent possible the incarceration of these presumptively innocent individuals without undermining the public's safety.

A consultant retained to conduct an assessment of the county's criminal-justice system concurred with the task force's recommendation. The consultant's report was an indictment of the status quo in this county: "Pretrial justice in Champaign County is woefully underdeveloped, leading to system inefficiencies, unnecessary taxpayer cost, and possible inherent inequities in the initial handling of criminal cases."

So what has happened? Not much.

In November, several officials announced that for five weeks, they had "piloted" a "pretrial-services program" and found that it was a failure. What, unfortunately, has not been disclosed to the general public is that the nation's premier expert on pretrial services later reviewed the results of this purported pilot project.

The Pretrial Justice Institute reported in a letter to the Champaign County Board that the ostensible pilot project failed to include the most rudimentary features of pretrial services.

PJI also profiled studies confirming that current pretrial practices followed in this county actually jeopardize the public's safety, increase recidivism, unnecessarily consume jail space and waste public funds.

In short, this county still lacks and needs a comprehensive pretrial-services program. More fundamentally, we need evaluation mechanisms that produce reliable research findings on which policymakers and others can confidently rely.

The third component of a strong criminal-justice infrastructure entails public education and engagement.

Research has confirmed that the public supports basic criminal-justice reforms like those recommended by the task force when educated about them. The public also can play a vital role in bringing ideas and accountability to a sphere of government that is now largely shielded from the public's view.

Finally, if restorative justice were to become a mainstay of the criminal-justice system, individuals who committed a crime could take constructive steps to remedy, to the extent possible, the harm their crimes have caused. Restorative justice brings healing to victims, those who commit crimes, and the community.

We need that healing. Now.

Lynn Branham, who served on the Champaign County Community Justice Task Force, is a Champaign resident and visiting professor of law at the Saint Louis University.