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Clearly the word is getting out that the County Board intends to spend $20 million dollars on unneeded jail cells. At each Board meeting, opposition mounts. This week, Tuesday, March 17, at the justice committee meeting of the County Board, three issues rose to the fore. First came the fallout from State’s Attorney Julia Reitz’ comment the previous week that there was no need to include a “token” minority on an all-white jail space improvement team which has the major decision-making power over any construction project. Both Aaron Ammons and Martel Miller called for Reitz to step down from that committee. They also called for further investigation into the reasons why African-Americans make up more than 50% of the county jail population.
Our Cash-Starved Social Services
The other thread that came alive was the imperiled state of existing preventative programs. John Sullivan of the Center for Women in Transition and Sheila Ferguson of Community Elements reminded the Board of the continuing cutbacks in state and federal funding to social services. While the Board seriously considers spending $20 million to lock people up, Sullivan and Ferguson noted the declining resources available to those with crying needs in our community - people with mental illness, the homeless who resort to couch surfing, individuals with substance abuse problems-all of whom are likely candidates for incarceration in the absence of support services. The Board has a serious question to consider, one which most people might regard as a no-brainer-do we spend a little bit of money to fund services to keep people out of jail or $20 million to keep them in a state-of-the-art jail once they are arrested?
Alternatives to Incarceration
Lastly, a number of people urged the Board to give more power to a Justice and Social Services task team charged with investigating, among other things, alternatives to incarceration. To emphasize the viability of such alternatives GEO Solidarity Committee member Sarah Lazare presented research which highlighted programs from around the country that had successfully reduced the both numbers of people in jail and the expense for local authorities. We can only hope that the Board will seriously examine such alternatives and take them as seriously as they regard the fancy talk of architects and planners anxious to deliver a cutting edge lockup to our county, regardless of the consequences for poor communities of color.