URBANA – As the Champaign County Board considers closing the older of its two county jails, progressive Democrats running for board seats argue for making any new jail facility a smaller one.
It’s generally agreed that the Champaign County Jail in downtown Urbana is dangerously run down. County Board Chairman Giraldo Rosales, a Champaign Democrat from the county board’s District 8, argued the point at a candidates forum in January.
“The building at the downtown jail is hazardous, people are getting hurt. It is condemned. It is anti American Disabilities Act. We’re going to get fined if we don’t do something immediately about it,” said Rosales.
County board members are considering putting a public safety sales tax before the voters, to pay for demolishing the downtown jail and expanding the county’s satellite jail.
But Rosales’ Democratic primary challenger, Emily Rodriguez, told the same forum that the new facility would be less expensive if it didn’t need to hold as many inmates. Rodriguez said that could happen if the state ended the practice of holding people awaiting trial who can’t pay bail.
“Between 70 and 90% of those that are currently in jail are awaiting trial,” said Rodriguez. “That means that they are waiting to make bail. It makes no sense to hold these people in jail. They can go home and await trial. There’s no reason to try somebody twice for the same crime.”
Rodriguez supports proposals to end cash bail in Illinois, which also have the backing of Governor JB Pritzker. Meanwhile, two other progressive Democratic county board candidates, Mary King (challenging Connie Dillard-Myers in District 10) and Jennifer Straub (challenging Cynthia Fears in District 9), are using a coordinated campaign to call for expanding community programs to keep the jail population smaller.
King said the county should do more to keep people out of jail, and help them once they’re released.
“They also need to be addressing whether or not there are programs in place to try and divert people who are having mental health crises rather than incarcerating them, to address recidivism, to make sure that there’s space within the jail then for continuing education, for recreation, for meeting with your lawyer,” said King.
A group of county residents called for the same reforms at a March 3 meeting of the Champaign County Board Facilities Committee, which is considering the sales tax and jail consolidation proposal.
But the committee’s vice-chair, Democrat Steve Summers, responded with his view that it’s not so simple.
“And I’ve heard people in the audience talk about many very worthy projects that could use funding and would be a huge benefit to our community,” said Summers, who is running for reelection to his seat in District 9, but has no primary opponent. “Unfortunately most of the programmatic pieces that were brought would not be able to be funded by a public safety sales tax.”
Another committee member, Charles Young of Champaign, was more sympathetic to the proposals to reduce the jail population.
“There are other ways that you can strategically finance different projects and different ways to incarcerate people,” said Young, who is being challenged by DeShawn Williams in the Democratic primary for his District 6 seat. “So I’m the all the way, in regards to trying to make a difference, instead of just loading up people into going to the county jail, especially people of color.”
The Champaign County Board could vote this spring to send the sales tax question to voters. Facilities Committee Chair Stan Harper of rural Ogden says he would like to move the proposal out of committee in April. But the debate over what kind of jail should be built with the revenue could continue into 2021 and beyond.