URBANA — The new chairman of the Champaign County Board has removed his one-time opponent as the head of a community task force on justice and county jail issues.
Replacing Champaign Democrat Michael Richards as chairwoman of the task force will be Astrid Berkson, another Champaign Democrat, who sided with new board chairman Al Kurtz last Monday night when he challenged Richards for chairmanship of the county board. Kurtz won the position with the votes of three Democrats and all 10 Republicans on the board.
"All I felt is that the actual task force had sort of disappeared and it was over, that I wanted some fresh blood in there," Kurtz said Friday. "We want new people to step up into new jobs so that they have expertise and experience in different areas of government."
Richards said Friday afternoon that Kurtz had not informed him of the change, but he wasn't surprised.
"It's the chair's decision, just like it was the chair's decision to offer (Berkson) the justice committee over me as well," Richards said. "I'm certainly going to continue to work with the task force on justice issues, no matter what role I play on the county board. We're all adults here. The chair got a majority on the board Monday night of Republicans and a couple of renegade Democrats. It's his prerogative to make appointments. I wasn't consulted on any of this so there's not much I can say about it."
The community justice task force had been meeting since May, studying existing county programs and looking into what could be done to prevent incarceration, reduce recidivism and promote rehabilitation of prisoners.
Last month, in what was termed a progress report, the task force offered several of what it called "potential recommendations," including that the county move away from incarceration to a "restorative justice approach to justice," that the county establish a coordinating council "to ensure that the criminal justice system in Champaign County operates cost-effectively and humanely" and that improvements should be made to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs to reduce recidivism and promote rehabilitation.
"Incarceration should really be the last resort, the last option," Lynn Branham, a member of the task force, told the county board. "It recognizes how very costly incarceration is, not only because of the construction costs, but also operating expenses. You're covering medical costs, other things. It's very expensive."
Kurtz said he will appoint new members to the task force, in addition to the new chairwoman.
"We want to have a continuation of the justice task force. We're going to have to find a few more people to serve because some people have decided to move on," he said. "We think it's a important piece to this jail issue and we want to have all sides to the issue give us their input. We decided that Miss Berkson would be the chair so that we can continue the work between the consulting firm and the task force."
A California consulting firm, the Institute for Law and Policy Planning, is working with the task force to develop a plan for the county's justice system, particularly what to do about the 30-year-old downtown jail, which has been described anywhere from "substandard" to "deplorable." The ILPP recommendations are expected this spring.
Richards said he hopes the revised group "continues the work the task force has been doing on justice issues, trying to bring all the stakeholders to the table and to improve the system."
He said that he, as the chairman of the task force, hadn't had any conversations with Kurtz about its work.
"I hope (Berkson) is ready. We had a lot of meetings that went for hours. This has not been a committee where you just look around and look pretty," Richards said. "A lot of work has gone into it. I hope the new leadership team is ready to keep that up because we just scratched the surface. Every time we've looked at something, we found that we need to look deeper if we're going to find real solutions."
Both Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz and Presiding Judge Tom Difanis, interviewed before this week's changes at the county board level, said they were open to the task force's recommendations but said that money is a problem.
"A lot of what they are suggesting would cost substantial sums of money, but it's up to the county board to decide what if any of those programs or suggestions they want to go with," Difanis said.
"I told them that I'm perfectly open to suggestions. Everyone can always do things better or differently, but creating new programs costs money," Rietz said. "As far as the suggestion that we use restorative justice principles, I would say that we do.
"I have diversion programs. We have a drug court. We have mental health court. We have community-based options. We consider treatment and rehabilitation first. We have very strong victim services to make sure that victims' needs are protected. And all of that is part of a concept of balanced and restorative justice."
Rietz said she "was a bit disappointed that the task force didn't compare what's available here to what's available or not available in other communities. I think they would see that we are very resource-rich in Champaign County."
Difanis, too, said that many of task force's recommendations already are in practice in Champaign County, including working cooperatively to lower the jail population.
"When I took over as presiding judge we had over 300 in jail. We've dropped the population by at least 100," he said. "We're not building because we're overcrowded; we're building because the place across the street (the downtown jail) should be condemned."