URBANA – A special Champaign County Board committee has three months to come up with a plan to resolve the county’s jail issues. Meanwhile, the sheriff plans to send some inmates to jails in other counties, due to a shortage of correctional officers.
County board members meeting as a Committee Of The Whole Tuesday night voted unanimously to create the jail committee. And they gave it a deadline to report its findings: the Nov. 18 county board meeting.
The seven-member committee will be made up of County Board Chair Kyle Patterson, and the committee chairs (all Democrats) and vice-chairs (all Republicans) for Justice & Social Services, Policy Personnel & Appointments, and the Facilities Committee.
“The goal is to have a pretty quick process,” said Patterson in an interview last week. “I think we’re going to meet only probably about three times. And before the end of the year, we hope to have a proposal to submit to the county board, on essentially what to do with our jail facilities.”
The committee was proposed by Champaign Democrat Chris Stohr of Urbana, who as Policy Committee Chair, will have a seat on the new jail committee.
Facilities Committee Vice-Chair Stan Harper (R-rural Ogden), who will serve on the new committee, says there have been enough studies made of conditions at the downtown jail and proposed changes for the satellite jail. He says the new committee has to be focused on action.
“Who’s ever on this committee has to come into it to make a plan, an action plan, and commit to it and get this thing moving,” said Harper. “We’re one major catastrophe in the jail, either staff or inmate-wise, that could cost this county millions of dollars.”
Other members of the Jail committee will be Justice chair Leah Taylor and vice-chair Jim McGuire, Policy vice-chair Brad Passalacqua and Facilities Committee chair Steve Summers.
Although the voice vote to form the committee was unanimous, Champaign Democrat Samantha Carter voiced her concern that the county was more focused on a jail building than it was on helping people improve their lives and stay out of jail in the first place.
“I just would like to see a balance, basically,” said Carter. “I do understand the urgency to get the county jail up to par as far as with staffing and also the physical facility. But, I also want to see that same energy towards helping people reform their lives and hopefully having a better life after the incarceration process.”
Meanwhile, the county board’s GOP caucus leader, Jim Goss of Mahomet, said the county board had put off a decision on its jail problems for too long.
“We’ve got to make a decision,” said Goss. “We’ve kicked the can down the road long enough. So I will support the formation of this committee, only because it puts an end-date on it.”
Champaign County officials have long worried about conditions at the downtown Urbana jail facility, built in 1980. It has been criticized for being in poor condition, with an obsolete design. County officials would like to close the downtown jail, and enlarge and renovate the satellite jail, which opened in east Urbana in the 1990s.
But so far, the county has failed to raise enough money to pay for the renovations. Champaign County voters rejected a 2016 referendum for a sales tax to pay for county facilities construction, which would have funded satellite jail renovations projected by a 2015 consultant’s study to cost $32 million. By fall of 2019, the projected cost of jail renovations had risen to $47 million. The COVID-19 pandemic put jail discussions on pause during 2020. But county officials started thinking about Champaign County’s jail problems in 2021.
Sheriff Seeks Funding To Move Prisoners Out Of County
County Board members also gave their committee-level approval Tuesday night to a request from Sheriff Dustin Heuerman to spend $494,100 to move up to 70 county jail inmates to jails outside the county. Most of the prisoners would come from the downtown jail.
But in this case, the chief problem is staffing, not conditions at the jail facility. Sheriff Heuerman says he has twelve vacancies among his correctional staff, with only ten applying for the positions. He says the staff shortage makes patrolling the jails difficult, and that moving prisoners out of the county will give him time to hire and train new officers.
“This proposal is aimed at getting as many inmates out of the downtown facility as possible,” said Heuerman, “to reduce the inmate to correctional officer ratio, that we’re currently seeing because of safety issues; and also because of COVID-19, that we’re starting to see in the jail again.”
Heuerman said he would be happy to close the downtown jail completely and never reopen it. But he says the need to segregate classifications of prisoners probably means the downtown jail can’t be closed completely. And the funding he’s seeking will only pay for holding inmates in other counties’ jails for the rest of this year.
The sheriff’s funding request will receive a final vote at the August 19th Champaign County Board meeting. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Brookens Administrative Center in Urbana. County Board Chair Kyle Patterson says no further votes are needed to launch the special jail committee. He says the panel will hold its first meeting in September.
(Story updated with additional details – JM 2:25 PM, Aug 11 2021)
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