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Last night, May 11th, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ) held a public forum on the jail issue. The event was a response to the County Board's current consideration of a plan to spend $20 plus million on a new jail. CUCPJ organized the event because the Jail Planning Team of the County Board has refused requests to take the issue to the public. The overflow crowd at Urbana City Council chambers listened to a series of speakers question the wisdom of spending such a huge amount of money when the county has so many other urgent needs.
The special guests for the evening were a team of people from Decarcerate Monroe County (DMC), a group from Bloomington, Indiana which successfully blocked a similar initiative in their area. Lindsay Badger, a spokesperson for the group, noted that "our community is much the better for the choice it made not to spend $78 million on locking up more loved ones and fellow citizens." Micole Seigel of DMC noted that public safety does not equate with more jail cells but is much more about meeting peoples' basic needs and ensuring they "feel empowered and free."
Also on the program was University of Illinois Accounting Profess Rachel Schwartz who said that the county actually had no funds to pay for a $20 million jail and noted that, if undertaken, the construction costs would likely be far greater than anticipated. Schwartz emphasized that the county had paid off only about $2 million on the $23 million it borrowed back in 1998 to finance the buildig of a Juvenile Detention Center and the renovation of the courthouse. She argued that just paying that debt off alone will take another 17 years and cost the county an additional $50 million.
Board member and CUCPJ member Carol Ammons stressed that the real solution was to fix up the downtown jail, which the planning team intends to close. Built in 1980, Ammons questioned how it came to be in such a sad state and why the planning team was reluctant to spend the estimated $1.8 million needed to repair the existing facility rather than spend $20 plus million on new digs. She also noted that the trend across the country was to decarcerate, that is, reduce the number of people in prisons and jails rather than to lock more people up. She was especially concerned about the disproportionate number of African Americans in the jail which is consistently more than half while Blacks make up only 12% of the general population in the county.
While the speakers were effective, the highlight of the forum was the participation by members of the audience. Martel Miller raised the need for alternatives and suggested the possibility of all of the $20 million going to Head Start. Garden Hills resident Marti Wilkinson noted the trend in the schools toward a more heavy-handed policing type attitude as if certain students were being prepared for jail and prison rather than higher education or useful career options. Several of the speakers called on the handful of County Board members who were present to listen carefully to the alternatives and vote against the proposal if and when it comes before the Board.
Panel moderator Aaron Ammons closed the evening by thanking the audience for their participation and vowed that CUCPJ would continue its active opposition to the $20 plus million jail construction project.