County Board Commits $6.81 million to Courthouse while Justice is Still Compromised Inside

About 30 people showed up to the County Board Thursday night to provide the County Board with a host of alternative proposals for the $6.81 million dollars the County Board was considering to commit to courthouse and tower renovations. In the end the County Board passed the courthouse proposal 18 to 6.

"While we are writing checks for the county clock tower, let's look into what is going on inside the building"

"While we are writing checks for the county clock tower, let's look into what is going on inside the building," urged Chris Evans, a member of C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice, who spoke in support of increasing funding for the Public Defender's Office. Currently Champaign County Public Defenders each average about 450 cases per year - 300 more than the maximum case load recommended by the Illinois State Bar Association. Evans said later, "As a result, Public Defenders do not have adequate time to investigate cases and interview witnesses. The caseload on the PD's are giving the upper hand to the state's attorneys who can then leverage poor plea bargains. Poorly investigated and weak cases get pleaded out to felonies, and that felony conviction follows your career forever." Evans argued that the lack of public defenders violated citizen's constitutional rights to adequate legal representation and due process in Champaign County. Later Aaron Ammons, also of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice added "Public defenders are seen as public pretenders." "Why wouldn't we fund the Public Defender dollar for dollar with the States Attorney's office?," Ammons said. Ammons also urged the board to Increase the jury stipend to increase the participation of low income and African American residents on juries. Currently, black defendants regularly face all-white juries.

"We are doing the County's work for free"

"We are doing the County's work for free," said Barb Kessel of Books to Prisoners, a group that established and staffs an all-volunteer library in the county jail. " We aren't complaining about doing it ... We do it because we know of the enormous impact books of choice have on inmates," she said. But it gives her pause when she sees the county spending millions on the building of justice instead of the people receiving justice. She asked for funds for a part-time librarian in the jail. "We are taking about thousands - not millions of dollars" she explained, referring to the salary of the proposed librarian. Any kind of education program reduces recidivism and increases prison safety, Kessel claimed, citing a recent report. "At first, the Correctional Officers were not thrilled about having a library in the jail, but now, they love it. It makes their lives easier."

"We as a community have failed when we have warm buildings and people sleeping outside"

"We as a community have failed when we have warm buildings and people sleeping outside," said Beth Simpson re-telling the story of a women who asked her for help getting a room for the night in the recent below zero weather. Simpson is the Peer Mediation Coordinator at Urbana Middle School. Peer mediation teaches youth to consider their alternatives to engaging in conflict, she explained. This is a program that prevents youth getting involved in the criminal justice system, but the High School lacks a mediation system, as do neighborhoods, or the police. Simpson is fired each year and rehired the next year. This is because the funding for peer mediation is under threat of being cut each year, she explained in a later interview. She wants the County to consider helping fund peer mediation from its public safety funds - the same funds used for the courthouse work.

"The Courthouse is not a church - it does not have to reach up to the heavens"

"The Courthouse is not a church - it does not have to reach up to the heavens," U of I Professor Emeritus Belden Fields said. Referring to the millions proposed for the courthouse building, he said: "Boy, if we took a little bit of that money and set up a contingency fund for the nursing home in difficult times, it would be a great thing," Fields said, urging support for the highly regarded, but financially taxed, County nursing home.

Durl Kruse held up a report called the "Future of the Courts in Champaign County" from 2003, noting that some County Board members had participated in drafting it. The study urges the formation of a committee to recommend changes in the criminal justice system. Topics for further discussion included: fairness of the Public Defender system, the criminal justice system's relationship with social service providers, and developing or expanding alternatives to imprisonments such as drug court, mental health court, and peer court. So far, this committee was never formed, Kruse said.

Patrick Thompson of Visionaries Educating Youth and Adults urged educational support for youth and crime prevention.

About three hours into the meeting, the County Board took its vote. All but one Democrat and 5 Republicans supported the funds for the courthouse. Catherine Hogue, who was serving her last day on the County Board, was the lone Democratic vote. Hogue resigned last night after a year of health problems. She will be replaced by Carol Ammons. Several board members criticized the members of the public who spoke against the funds, saying that they had not been involved in the process from the beginning.

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