On consecutive days earlier this month — June 4 and 5 — two local men convicted of murder were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Dangellis Chambers was ordered to serve 55 years in prison, while Michael Henslick, convicted in the high-profile Holly Cassano murder case, was sentenced to life.
Both men, however, remain in the Champaign County Jail, along with 25 other inmates who either have been sentenced to prison or are to be returned to prison for violating the terms of their paroles.
Why are they here — the county jail — instead of there — state prison?
On March 26, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered prison officials to refuse to accept any more transfers from county jails as a means of controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
But Pritzker’s efforts to ease the state’s problems have considerably complicated circumstances in county jails, where the number of inmates awaiting transfer to prison grows each day.
“We work so hard to keep the jail population down,” said Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman. Pritzker’s order “has hindered our ability to be flexible.”
The 102 county sheriffs in Illinois have tried to persuade Pritzker to modify his order. But when those efforts proved fruitless, the Illinois Sheriff’s Association filed a lawsuit May 28 in Logan County, which has both a men’s and women’s prison, that asks a judge to order Pritzker to comply “with the dictates” of state law and reopen state prisons to inmate transfers.
Heuerman is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They include Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Logan County Sheriff Mark Landers.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the sheriff’s association as well as local sheriffs by Springfield lawyer Richard Stewart Jr., contends that county sheriffs are required by law to convey “all persons sentenced to a term of imprisonment” to a state prison and that prison officials have a statutory duty to “accept persons committed to it.”
So far, nothing has happened in the case. Defendants typically have 30 days to respond to a lawsuit, and prison officials are in no hurry to move the process along.
Corrections officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit, explaining that they never comment on pending litigation.
County sheriffs, however, are not so reticent.
Macon County Sheriff’s Lt. Jamie Belcher said his county’s jail has a capacity of 250 inmates and it’s currently holding 39 who are waiting to be transferred to state prison.
At the same time, he said Macon County has seven inmates waiting to be transferred to a state mental-health facility. Pritzker also has barred state mental0health facilities, like the McFarland Mental Health Center in Springfield, from accepting transfers.
Macon County also holds inmates facing federal charges. Like the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is refusing to accept inmates sentenced on federal charges.
Of the 27 inmates in the Champaign County Jail, there are 24 males and three female inmates.
The jail has a capacity of 165. But administrators there try to separate various categories of inmates (male/female, the mentally ill, those serving a county jail sentence).
The Vermilion County Jail has a capacity of 411 and currently holds 265. Of those, Capt. Colin Osterbur said 21 are waiting to be transferred to a state prison.
The jail is also holding inmates for transfer to a state mental-health facility but has enjoyed better luck than Macon County.
“We’ve had a couple transferred recently, so that faucet is getting turned back on,” Osterbur said.
Space is not the only issue local officials face. County jails are responsible for the costs of the extra inmates, including food, and have a legal obligation to provide potentially costly medical care if it’s needed.
One intangible cost involves disciplinary issues. Inmates already sentenced to prison may feel less incentive to follow jail rules if they know they’re already headed to prison.
“All of the burdens have been placed on the local communities,” said Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the sheriff’s association.
Although the language is clear regarding the governor’s statutory duties to carry out state law regarding prison admissions, he’s invoked and repeatedly extended his emergency authority to make special rules in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Challenged in the courts regarding issues like business closings and bans on church attendance, Pritzker’s actions have, for the most part, been vindicated by the courts as within his emergency authority.
Pritzker’s rules, however, have been loosening as the weeks have passed. The state is scheduled to move to Phase 4 of his Restore Illinois plan on Friday.
While county jail populations have been expanding as a result of Pritzker’s refusal to accept transfers, the state’s prison population has been declining.
He’s ordered mass releases of prison inmates as a means of controlling the spread of the virus. On Tuesday, the state’s prison population Tuesday was 32,511, down from 38,141 on Jan. 1.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-351-5369.