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Report back from County Board meeting on March 22, 2012
Since the proposed plans for the $20 million jail construction project landed on the Champaign County Board agenda earlier this year, the driving force behind this process has been an all-white grouping known as the Jail Space Improvement Planning Team. The team has functioned somewhat like a secret society within the board. While all subcommittees and advisory bodies of the board are supposed to be under the Open Meetings Act (and therefore open to the public and obliged to keep records/minutes of their proceedings), the leading light of the Planning Team, Board member Tom Betz, has repeatedly claimed that the team falls outside the regulations of Open Meetings. When pressed for minutes of their meetings, County Board Administrator Deb Busey claimed that the group never met and therefore had no minutes.
The Public= “Lunatic Fringe”
In the last week, documents acquired by a Freedom Of Information Act request have revealed a number of troubling communications exchanged by members of the Jail Space Improvement Project Planning Team. The Team is the Champaign County Board's primary representative to County staff on the jail issue. Among these documents are emails exchanged by County Administrator Deb Busey and County Sheriff Dan Walsh which site projected costs as well as specific numbers concerning bonds to be issued backed by the Public Safety Sales Tax.
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
It took the County Board until almost midnight on Tuesday to pass the RFP for a needs assessment concerning the county jail. This is a first step in their grand plans to spend $20 million (likely more) on building new cells at the satellite jail. The five and a half hour meeting kicked off with an hour of public participation during which a parade of individuals stood at the podium urging the Board to re-think its approach to addressing "public safety" by building more jail beds. Three themes recurred during these inputs: 1) the overwhelmingly disproportionate presence of African Americans in the jails (more than 60% in a county that is 12% Black) 2) the lack of public voice in the decision-making process, particularly on the Board's all-white Jail Space Improvement Planning team which wields the bulk of authority on the jail issue 3) that there are many, many better ways to spend $20 million dollars in Champaign County than to build new jail facilities.
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.
Save the date!
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Attached is the 2011 jail inspection of the Champaign County jails by criminal justice specialist Brad Bresson of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Despite claims by Sheriff Dan Walsh that the downtown jail is uninhabitable, it passed state inspection.
Another crowd of people showed up for a second week to oppose plans for expansion of the Champaign County jail. Several individuals spoke during public comment. Among them were:
Mikhail Lyubansky, who writes and teaches about restorative justice, said, "Jail is just one strategy, not the only one" to public safety and called on the County Board to look into alternatives to incarceration.
Peter Campbell of the GEO Solidarity Committee said, "To argue that we should expand a jail in order to treat prisoners better is perverse: any public official who makes this argument is trading on the lives of the most vulnerable in our community for their own political gain."
Chris Evans spoke about the history of the public safety quarter cent sales tax, passed by voters in 1998. The sales tax ought to be brought back to voters, he said.