It’s been a long time coming — years in fact.
But on Thursday, the Champaign County Board decided to halt its headlong flight from reality and face up to its responsibilities of overseeing a proper jail.
It approved the $20 million construction of two new pods at the satellite jail facility at 502. S. Lierman Ave., U. This will clear the way for the closure of the existing jail located in the building shared by the sheriff’s office in downtown Urbana.
One pod will be used to house 49 male and female prisoners while the other 26-bed unit will be reserved for “special needs” prisoners, including those with medical, mental or addiction issues who require extra attention and oversight.
The current downtown jail, overcrowded since it was opened roughly 40 years ago, is a substandard facility. That it’s currently being used to hold 59 prisoners in addition to the 134 at the satellite jail speaks more to necessity than desire on the part of Sheriff Dustin Heuerman.
“We’ve seen our population go up slowly all year long,” he said.
The problem has reached the point where overflow prisoners (67 as of Thursday) were being held in out-of-county jails. This costs taxpayers anywhere from $45 to $60 each per day for boarding costs.
Lest anyone leap to the conclusion that some current inmates are being held for no good reason and ought to be released on their own recognizance, Heuerman said he has reviewed the roster and would not be comfortable seeing any released without being required to post a bond.
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz agreed, noting employees in her and the sheriff’s office routinely review jail population lists to determine who can be released without posing a public safety threat.
“We’re very careful,” she said.
The News-Gazette has credited law enforcement officials in the past for their sincere efforts to ensure that low-level offenders be released on no bond or on low bond.
But there are limits to that practice, one of which is the current series of local shootings that have left some dead, others wounded and a community deeply concerned.
The shootings have exacted devastating direct human costs. But there are indirect costs as well, and they, too, are steep. Metal detectors and additional security officers in public schools are one. Holding alleged wrongdoers in the county jail is another.
Heuerman said the increase in jail population is partly attributable to multiple arrests on gun-related charges. Oversight also is complicated by the need to keep members of the rival groups who are shooting at each other separate while behind bars.
Further aggravating the problem are coronavirus protocols needed to minimize the spread of the virus. That includes quarantining those who have been exposed to or contracted the virus, a space-eater in facilities that do not have as much space as is needed.
The basic problem, however, is that the downtown jail has to go. That is hardly a revelation. Not everyone has been willing to acknowledge it, and no one wants to bear the expense of new jail space. But it’s a fact that finally conquered even some of the most obstinate naysayers.
“I think that after 14 years and multiple county boards, they’ve finally come to an understanding the issue needs to be addressed,” said Rietz.
The $20 million costs will be covered by existing capital development funds and bonds. The county will borrow $13 million and re-pay it over 20 years. Luckily, interest rates are low. The balance will be covered by $5 million in federal coronavirus aid money.
Even though the problem is current, the solution will take time. The sheriff said construction won’t be complete until 2023. The good news, of course, is that county officials have taken an affirmative step toward solving a long-standing problem.