Smile Politely

Why voters should not support tax for a new jail in Champaign County

Sensing the frustration during the public’s participation at last Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole county board meeting, Champaign county Finance Chairman, Chris Alix, asked Deputy Sheriff Alan Jones a direct question: “What are the steps we would need to go through to have beds [at a community-based behavioral facility]?”

Jones has been charged for the last year-and-a-half with leading an exploratory committee towards implementing a drop-off center where police can take “frequent flyers” (a term Jones used to refer to citizens who frequently have the cops called on them.) The intent of a drop-off center is to alleviate an officer’s time spent with a disturbed person, and not crowd the jail or hospital emergency rooms with people suffering from mental illness or a drug abuse crisis. 

Mental health service provider Sandra Ahten recounted for the county board her experience of having served on the committee led by Jones and accused the group of having lost focus at really solving the genuine lack of treatment in Champaign County. Ahten said, “I’m not as pleased that the whole community process that was emphasized during the initiation to the ‘Stepping Up’ initiative seems to have been sidelined.”

Jones claimed he’s been “busy” working on the drop-off center by going to Washington D.C. for educational conferences and grant-writing classes. The slowness of the process, Jones said, can be explained by the committee’s inability to secure grant funding for the center, and no service provider has stepped up to staff such a behavioral facility.

The county’s plan to spend $54 million new tax dollars over the next 12 years does not include using the proposed sales tax to build and operate a community-based behavioral facility. The idea for community-based treatment, rather than prosecution and incarceration in our county jail, has been dismissed as a Group C “conceptual project;” and instead, the building of 100 new jail beds and a new jail-intake area at the Satellite Jail has been prioritized as Job 1 at the hefty price of $10-13 million dollars. 

No one on the County Board would admit that the community-based treatment center is not scheduled to happen. The county government pretends to be building a community-based treatment facility as a way to woo voters to increase their taxes.
Furthermore, the rush to build a $10-13 million dollar jail expansion has been attached to saving the county’s nursing home. The nursing home needs $2 million dollars of deferred maintenance, an annual $750,000 for operating expenses, and a portion of the old nursing home needs to be demolished. Also attached to the jail expansion is $27 million dollars of deferred maintenance on 22 other properties the county maintains. The county needs new revenue and needs to do some overdue care on it’s buildings.

County administrator Rick Snider estimates that a county with $150,000,000 of properties should be spending $3 million dollars per year towards maintenance. During the county’s 20-year lust to expand and decorate its criminal justice empire, maintenance on facilities received only $532,000 a-year. Despite the county having done a poor job of maintaining its buildings, and were the new tax simply allotted for the nursing home and the $27 million dollars of deferred maintenance, the tax should be supported.

For the reasons of dingy lighting, pests, and peeling paint, Sheriff Dan Walsh has been gunning to abandon the “deplorable” 36 year-old Downtown Urbana Jail for the last 10 years.  Walsh wants to consolidate all jailing at the Satellite Jail. Therefore, Walsh has made sure over the years that when the County Board talks about improving facilities, his jail (and his new $2 million dollar office) are at the top of the list of considerations. Most of the county board’s efforts at exploring how it jails its citizens is informed by law enforcement and the jail architects, contractors and banks who stand to profit from more jail building.

Build Programs Not Jails activist James Kilgore reminded the county board that building more jail is a political decision, not a facilities question. Kilgore is right. The decision to take someone to jail for driving on a suspended license is a political one. Taking someone to jail for failing to pay a past city ticket about an open container of alcohol, or possessing <2.5 grams of marijuana are political decisions. The County Board barrels forward with a jail building project, pretending they have not been told for the last 5 years (since conditions at the jail became a debate) that the community would rather Champaign County reduce the number of arrests and prosecutions first before spending millions of dollars building more cages.

In 2013, the county received 10 recommendations from a Community Justice Task Force on how to reduce incarceration. The County Board since then has only adopted two recommendations, thanks mostly to a boisterous Black Lives Matter contigent. The county’s reluctant adoption of a Racial Justice Task Force to study the grotesque racial disparity within the criminal justice system was sparked by the loud audience participation of the local Black Lives Matter chapter.

Some believe reducing the jail population is impossible because people will continue to break the law. Unfortunately, how Champaign County defines “breaking the law” has little to do with actual public safety. U of I political science and communications professor Scott Althaus’ seminar class tracked 5,016 police-citizen contacts between June 1, 2015 and September 1, 2015 and discovered 92% of the incidents were for non-violent offenses

When the Planners Network from the U of I’s School of Urban Planning tracked 4,923 bookings to the county jail in 2014, they found 3,966 (81%) were for non-violent offenses. County administrator Snider admitted to the County Board last Tuesday night that 1/3 of all who are booked into the county jail stay in the jail less than 8 hours.

Champaign County arrests and jails over 8,000 people per year, prosecutes an average of 4,000 cases per year, and collects $9-10 million dollars per year in fees and fines from people convicted in its courts

Adding more jail cells to increase this system’s efficiency and convenience is detrimental to our county’s social and economic health.

Until a better-prioritized plan for spending $54 million new tax dollars is adopted by the County Board, and the public is allowed to debate whether we need more jail space, voters should vote no on the question of raising a quarter-cent sales tax for “public safety purposes.”

Photo of Champaign County Satellite Jail by CU Citizen Access

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