URBANA — Champaign County is doing a good job of managing its jail population, consultants say, but it needs to improve "filtering" the people who end up in the criminal justice system.
Representatives of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Institute of Law and Policy Planning have been in Champaign County for more than a month, interviewing people about the county's criminal justice system in preparation for the release of a jail-needs assessment, due in late April. The county is paying ILPP nearly $120,000 for the study.
One of the consultants, David Voorhis, told the county board last week that the county has "a great opportunity here to make big changes in your system.
"It's really apparent that the system, the sheriff and the courts in particular have made strides in reducing the jail's population. But there's a lot of work to be done in that jail, both jails. I don't speak of just the downtown jail. That satellite jail really needs some help, too," Voorhis, a former police chief in Boulder, Colo., told the county board.
He did not elaborate, but both he and Alan Kalmanoff, the executive director of ILPP, said the county "can further tighten its system."
"Eighty to 90 percent of the people that go into the county jail come back out. They don't go into the prison system, only a very small part go," Voorhis said. "That's the filtering process that county jails do, which means you really need some good instruments in screening the right people to go on, and you don't have those," he said of Champaign County. "Those are really not in place, in my opinion."
Kalmanoff, in a separate interview, said the county's criminal justice system "has gotten much faster in the last six or seven years. And that's why you don't have (jail) crowding anymore. I haven't seen the data yet but I predict, before I even look at it, that it won't be a matter of more or less crime but rather it's faster processing."
That, he said, "is an enormous, enormous credit to this county, the government, the criminal justice system and particularly the presiding judge."
Now it is time to "further tighten the system" with programs that keep people out of jail, Kalmanoff said.
"That might mean a day reporting center. Not a residential center but a place where people report to with their bag lunch to take anger management programs and to take an alcohol and drug program," he said. "Or it might mean putting someone in for drunk driving in a motel because the drunk driver who's sober isn't driving and drinking. Why do you need (jail) bars? All you need is a hitching post."
"You've got a chance to really make a change in the criminal justice system," Voorhis said. "I'm often shocked by what counties do across this nation to perpetuate 200 years of the same kind of jails."
Neither man indicated they were ready to recommend closing the much-maligned, 32-year-old downtown Urbana jail that is across Main Street from the county courthouse. That's the course backed by, among others, Sheriff Dan Walsh.
But, said Voorhis, "I'm not saying don't build a jail. I'm just saying build right, plan, participate."
Said Kalmanoff, "If you have two facilities you're spending more than you would with the same number of beds under one roof."
And he said the satellite jail in east Urbana "isn't falling apart. It has a core. It has a kitchen. It has some of the things that are expensive, so one would think that one could make something out of that. We'll have to see. We're going to be looking at that, and we'll do some architectural and planning analysis of that."
Walsh— who said he's already talked to Kalmanoff, Voorhis and a third consultant about the county jail facilities — noted that the satellite jail "was designed so that you can add pods," and that's what he believes should be done.
"My position since about 2003 or 2004 has been that (the downtown jail) has huge problems. Something significant needs to be done. I am not a contractor, but I think the most logical thing is to add on to the satellite," Walsh said. "It is probably much more economical and efficient to do everything out there."
Meanwhile, Kalmanoff said he's kept busy interviewing people interested in the justice system.
"There's nobody we won't talk to," he said. "I've already talked to probably 20 people and I've only been here twice. I have other people working here too. By the time we're done, I'm sure we will have talked to at least 100 people."
And Voorhis urged the 22 county board members to dive into the jail issue.
"When we lock people up and take their freedoms away, we are committing a very difficult act under the sanction of the county," he said. "So I'm asking you to participate. Don't leave this study to be completed by ILPP and wait for the response. There's a lot of time between now and when this report comes out. I ask for your continued involvement."