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People from Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ) have been attending the County Board meetings on the proposed $20 million dollar jail construction project since January. Speakers during public comment have repeatedly pointed out to board members that the central problem with criminal justice in Champaign County is not a deteriorating building but the racial disparities in how the law is enforced. At present only 12% of county residents are African-American, yet our surveys show that typically more than 60% of those in the jail are Black. We assume that none of the board members are the kinds of Neanderthal s who believes Blacks have some special criminal gene or come from an “outlaw culture.” So if our board members don’t fall in that category, we want to know why, despite the fact that we’ve brought this up at every meeting, almost none of them want to deal with this crucial issue. Their silence on these racial disparities is deafening. They are ignoring the elephant in the room.
The Board would do well to consider this question: what would the jail population look like if African-Americans were incarcerated at the normal rate? Here’s a rough idea. The typical daily population in the county jail is currently around 220 people with at least 120 Blacks. If we succeeded in reducing the percentage of African-Americans to 12%, while not changing any other patterns of prosecution, we would end up with something like 120 people in the jail with about 15 African-Americans. There would be no need to build new jail cells. In fact, we could cut back on the existing jail capacity and start funding education, job training, mental health services, substance abuse programs, re-entry work and all the other things that inject opportunities rather than incarceration into the futures of the poor.
So how could this happen? The first step is that the County Board must acknowledge that there is a problem. We will keep reminding them until they get it. Research from across the country by major think tanks like the Justice Policy Institute, the Pew Research Center, the Sentencing Project and the Department of Justice itself has shown that racial disparities exist at every step of the criminal justice process. It may begin with racial profiling by cops on the street but it continues with how people are charged, the amount of bail they must pay, the types of legal services they receive, the types of plea bargains they are offered, the sentences they receive, how they are treated in prisons and jails, and the conditions of their parole and probation.
The County Board needs to tackle this-to face up to the fact that they have a much bigger problem than a building with a few maintenance issues. They have to uncover the racial discrepancies in their own system, develop policies to change that system and invest in those policies in order to move Champaign County toward some form of social justice and racial equality. This will go much further in ensuring public safety and justice in this county than spending $20 million on a shiny new jail.