The Champaign County Board Facilities Committee reviewed the latest version of a jail consolidation plan Wednesday night.
The revised proposal from the Champaign architectural firm Reifsteck Reid & Co. made a few changes from the version viewed by county board members last fall. It would reduce total inmate capacity by about 20 beds and increase the number of single-bed jail cells to about 44. It would also consolidate the county’s information technology facilities at the new sheriff’s office facility.
Architect Chuck Reifsteck said the overall cost estimate for jail construction remained about the same, at $37.68 million. The estimated cost for the new sheriff’s office is now $11.1 million, for a total cost of about $48.78 million.
Facilities Committee Chairman Stan Harper says the proposal could be paid for by a special temporary quarter-cent sales tax, which would require voter approval.
“It looks like that quarter-cent would generate more than enough to make the payments on this project,” said Harper, “plus maybe allow some money to put towards programs, towards the mental health situation we’re trying to address.”
Committee vice-chairman Steve Summers said if voters approve a tax to pay for construction at the satellite jail location, it would avoid what he sees as the greater expense of repairs to the older, deteriorating jail and sheriff’s office in downtown Urbana.
“If we don’t get the ability to have the funding, we won’t be able to do any of this,” said Summers. “But we will be responsible for likely millions of dollars of work that will have to be done at the downtown facility, that none of us want to keep open.”
But a group of residents who addressed the committee said the county should instead consider plans for a jail with a smaller inmate population, combined with increased social services and programs to help people with mental health, substance disorder and other problems that often result in jail time.
“The proposals that we’re going to bring will represent a third way between on the one hand, inaction, including inaction on the downtown jail, which needs attention, and action towards an unfeasible and unsustainable multi-million dollar jail building project,” said Dottie Vura-Weis, one of the speakers.
The alternate plan also counts on future changes in state law to eliminate the use of cash bail, which would lead to a reduction in the number of people jailed while awaiting trial. Gov. JB Pritzker has voiced his support for ending cash bail. And a 2017 law already allows judges to forgo a cash bond if they choose, releasing defendants on their own recognizance instead.
Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman told the committee he supported many of the programs that community members mentioned. But he said while work on them continues, the county needed to make sure it had a facility to house and care for its current inmate population.
“I absolutely agree, this is not the best method to go forward, but it’s the best method we have with what we’re working with right now, until some of these other things take effect,” said Heuerman.
Heuerman also noted the possibility that if the downtown jail had be closed before a new facility was built, the county would have to pay for housing inmates at jails outside Champaign County. He said the number of nearby counties willing to host Champaign County inmates is limited, and not available at all for inmates charged with certain offenses.
Facilities Committee Chair Harper says he’d like the panel to vote on the plan next month, so that the Champaign County Board can finally deal with the downtown jail’s long-standing problems.