One of the oldest issues facing Champaign County voters is on the verge of being new again.
County officials have had intermittent, but still long, conversations with voters about the conditions of the county jail for nearly four decades.
Circumstances have ranged from unacceptable, to overcrowded, to adequate and back to unacceptable again.
That’s why members of the county board and the sheriff are laying the groundwork for seeking voter approval of expensive plans to put the downtown jail out of commission and build an addition to the satellite facility in east Urbana.
The estimated total price is $47 million-plus, a cost that seems almost certain to rise. After all, look at the explosion in costs for the Champaign schools’ ongoing building and renovation work.
The question, unfortunately, is not whether the jail project needs to be done. It’s whether voters can abide taking another hit on their property taxes or some other tax on top of all the other tax and price hikes they’ve endured.
That’s a serious question. Taxpayers aren’t often given the chance to say yes or no to higher taxes, so when afforded that opportunity, they often reject new spending plans.
Sheriff Dustin Heuerman said Friday that the downtown jail currently holds about 30 inmates, some of them mentally ill and others who need maximum security. The numbers vary, of course, but the problems do not.
This facility was not built to house mentally ill inmates waiting for either a trial or a bed in a mental hospital to become available elsewhere in the state. But there they are, the criminal-justice system becoming a de facto caretaker of those too disturbed to avoid committing crimes and/or not ill enough to be committed against their will.
The downtown jail does not meet Illinois Department of Corrections standards, and it’s not designed in a way that minimizes violent acts by inmates aimed either at their fellow inmates or correctional officers.
The sheriff suggests the facility is not worth the investment it would take to bring it up to appropriate standards, and he’s right. In fact, the inadequate state of the downtown jail is old news. No one who knows anything about it disputes that reality.
The proposed solution is to build an addition to the satellite jail, one that is designed to handle different kinds of inmates.
Heuerman contends that “capacity is not the problem” at the satellite facility.
“The problem is the space,” he said.
In other words, facilities need to be put in place to absorb inmates moved from the downtown jail and then safely hold different kinds of inmates based on differing status — male or female, mentally ill, physically vulnerable, security threats, etc.
Keeping all of them in their proper locations is key to safe and effective management in a jail setting.
A county board committee recently approved the idea of consolidation. The full county board now is expected to study the issue.
Eventually, they’ll come up with a plan and ask voters to approve it. There’s no mystery here — all the parties have been through this drill before.
Heuerman suggests the best time to put this before the voters is November 2020. He said time is required to explain the need for the jail addition and consider alternatives to incarceration that would be effective in keeping people out of jail who don’t need to be in jail.
The timing, of course, is a matter of opinion and speculation. The need to get a better, safer jail facility built is pretty much a given.