A Bad Idea: The County Board’s Proposal to Spend $20 Million on Jail Construction

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Over the last few months a classic political power struggle has been taking place at Champaign County Board meetings.  At the center of it has been a Board proposal to spend $20 million on jail construction. People from Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ) and other groups have been vocal in opposing this plan.  The logic of those driving this $20 million project, an all-white team led by Board member Tom Betz, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, and Sheriff Dan Walsh, echoes the rationalizations used across the country by those responsible for the prison-building binge in the U.S. in the last three decades.

On the surface, supporters of prison and jail construction typically cast their plans as much needed improvements over an unworkable status quo. In this vein, Betz and co. depict their proposal as a response to the county’s odd situation of having two jails―one in downtown built in 1980  that holds 131 inmates, and a “satellite” in East Urbana built in 1996  that accommodates 182 inmates. According to the team, the downtown jail, which is typically no more than 40% full, is dilapidated and needs to be closed. They cite, among other things, problems of leaking roofs and rodent infestation. They also contend that consolidation would make for a more efficient operation, since the Sheriff’s deputies spend a lot of time running back and forth from one jail to the other.

This argument has not convinced local activists and community members. In a string of inputs at Board meetings, members of the public have presented a host of reasons why this particular jail is a bad idea. To begin with, building a new facility lets the County Board off the hook for not maintaining the downtown jail. How has the Board let a 32-year-old jail get into such woeful shape? This smells of willful neglect―a hidden agenda of making a new jail inevitable. Homeowners don’t tear down their houses because of roof leaks and roaches, why should the County Board be able to behave like this with taxpayers’ money?

Building the jail is also a bad idea because it ignores the recent history of this county. Statistics show that the average daily population in the jail and the crime rates in Champaign County have been steadily declining for the last five years. This doesn’t warrant building a new jail but mandates finding out what we can do to continue to decrease our need for jail space.

Now we come to the bigger reasons why this is a bad idea. Consider, for example, the glaring racial imbalance in our jail population. Consistently, more than half of those in the jail are African-American in a county that is 12% Black. Results like this are evidence of institutionalized racism that needs investigation. Figures collected annually by the Illinois Department of Transportation show there is heavy racial profiling of African-Americans during traffic stops in both Champaign and Urbana. Using some of that $20 million to examine racial discrepancies at other stages in the criminal justice system―charging, setting of bail, plea bargaining and sentencing―could yield important policy changes to reduce the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans. With an average daily jail population of about 230 people, if we trimmed the Black population through more equitable justice practices we wouldn’t need two jails or any new jail cells.

But it doesn’t end there. Building the jail is a bad idea because there are better alternatives to solving problems than incarceration. We now find cases of people in our county who are choosing to be arrested to gain access to health care and shelter. This situation came about largely because our social service programs currently suffer from huge budget cuts. The choice to spend $20 million on a county jail is a lost opportunity to allocate money to support programs which  keep people out of jail. Surely, if the best minds of the community, the social service providers, the Board, and  law enforcement came together they could come up with a way to spend that $20 million to decrease incarceration rates, reduce crime and improve the lives of vulnerable populations, particularly African American youth.

Then we come to the tax issue―the  fifth reason why  building the jail is a bad idea.  Betz and his team plan to finance the building of this jail with revenue from the public safety sales tax. At present the tax brings in over $4 million a year. This quarter cent levy was passed by a voter referendum in 1998. Income from the tax was supposed to be dedicated to specific projects: courthouse renovations, building the juvenile detention center, paying off the bond on the satellite jail. Just 5% was set aside for youth education. However, the ordinance attached to the referendum stated that once these projects were paid off (estimated to be 2014) the safety tax could not be continued without another referendum by voters. However, in 2003 the Board overturned that ordinance, taking out the guarantee of a voter referendum and making the safety tax virtually permanent, as long as it was spent on construction for “law enforcement.” Hence, building the jail with the public safety sales tax money violates a promise made to the voters―that they would have a voice in how the Board spent their money.

Which brings me to the last reason why building the jail is a bad idea: it has nothing to do with public safety. For a few people (the 1%ers and the law and order freaks), public safety equates with tough on crime regimes―more and stricter policing and more lockup facilities. But for vast sectors of the community, safety comes from having a safety net in place―access to health care, substance abuse programs, mental health support systems, job training, affordable housing, and food provision. $20 million would go a long way toward re-building that safety net.

However, just because something is a bad idea, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. We have lived through many bad ideas: the war in Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, privately run health care. Social justice activists will need to find a way to mobilize the community to stop this particular bad idea. Plans to build jails in other cities like Bloomington IN, Baltimore MD, and New Orleans, LA have been successfully thwarted by grassroots campaigns. Just recently, residents of Illinois halted the attempt to build an immigration detention center in Crete, IL by marching and protesting and pressuring legislators to vote it down. If they can do it in all those places, we can do it right here in Champaign-Urbana.

By Frank Little

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