URBANA -- After more than three hours of discussion, Champaign County Board members opted Tuesday night to continue studying the need for either a remodeled jail in downtown Urbana or an addition to the satellite jail in east Urbana.
The board declined to take a straw vote on whether to replace beds at the downtown jail, as Tom Betz, the chair of the county board's facilities committee, had suggested.
It's unclear whether the delay will slow down plans to begin some sort of capital improvement by 2015.
Engineer John Frauenhoffer told the board that the downtown Urbana jail could not be expanded upward without building a new frame around the existing building. That would be "fiscally restrictive," he said, adding that building a new structure would be cheaper and more efficient.
"You're going to pay a premium to add additional floor space on this site," he said of the downtown jail.
But Frauenhoffer said the cost to simply remodel the downtown jail without any expansion would be comparable to building a replacement addition to the satellite jail.
There would be other costs, however, including the need to close the downtown jail for a year during the remodel. That would mean housing an average of 50 inmates a day in neighboring county jails.
Sheriff Dan Walsh, who has argued for years that the downtown jail should be closed, said it is in "terrible" condition and "it's not getting any better" in terms of its ability to serve female inmates and those with medical and mental health problems.
At the time the jail was opened in 1980, Frauenhoffer said, "jails were never intended to be hospitals or mental health facilities."
But a large contingent of citizens, many of them members of Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace & Justice, asked the board to look at alternatives to incarceration instead of building more jail space.
"Let's not get stuck in a 20th century rut of building more space to incarcerate people," said William Sullivan of Urbana. He encouraged the board to invest in crime prevention, as well as housing, mental health and job training programs.
County board member Carol Ammons, an Urbana Democrat, noted that while 12 percent of the county's population is African American, more than 50 percent of the jail population is black.
She urged board members to form a public safety review committee to investigate how to reduce spending on incarceration, and said the board should put the jail expansion project to a voter referendum.
Ammons also suggested reallocating money from the county's quarter-cent public safety tax to programs instead of spending it on jail construction.
State's Attorney Julia Rietz said, however, that sales tax money does go into social services, including mentoring, parenting programs and the Boys and Girls Club.
Martell Miller of Champaign, who described himself as a "community ambassador," also argued for spending on programs rather than a new or remodeled jail.
"Let's put the money where it's needed. It's not needed in a new building," Miller said.
Patricia Avery of Champaign, a former chair of the county board, urged board members to look at options to jail construction and to slow down the process.
"There's no benefit to incarceration. I think they only learn to become better criminals," she said. "Take your time. Don't be in a rush to build another building or expanding."
But Betz, an Urbana Democrat who is an attorney and is chair of the board's facilities committee, delivered a stern defense of the county's justice system.
"It bothers me as a liberal to hear these things about the county," he said. He noted that the county operates an adult diversion program, uses home confinement and offers other services.
"We need to understand that we are not jailing people for jaywalking or minor misdemeanors," he said.