(This is the sixth of 10 posts. Each is a chapter from the Building a Safe Community project I did for the county.)
Crime in Winnebago County
On any given day, more than 900 inmates are housed in the Winnebago County Justice Center, known locally simply as “the jail.” During the summer of 2011, jail population topped 1,000 for the first time.
Opened in 2007 following a successful one-cent public safety sales tax referendum in 2002, the new justice center was built to house 1,212 inmates with the possibility of housing as many as 1,300.
The county spent $142 million constructing the new jail, forced to do so in the face of a federal jail-crowding lawsuit that threatened to release hundreds of criminals to the streets. Today, there are plenty of cell beds to house a jail population that has grown from under 700 to topping 1,000 in less than a decade.
By some estimates, 0.55 percent of the county’s adult population is in the Winnebago County jail. That makes for a dubious ranking in the state – greater than Sangamon and Cook counties, both at 0.45 percent.
Why is the jail population so high? There are multiple reasons for the escalating jail population, not all of them related to an increase in the number of crimes committed.
Winnebago County with the city of Rockford at its center is an urban metropolitan area – and no matter how it’s positioned, that means higher crime rates than in its suburban or rural neighbors.
Contributing to the growing Winnebago County jail population are more aggressive and effective policing on the streets, particularly in drug-related arrests; mandatory sentencing requirements; high bail coupled with decreased ability to pay; and, the State’s Attorney’s determination to prosecute offenders rather than plea bargain, which results in more offenders in jail awaiting trial.
The Winnebago County court system, like others around the country, is overwhelmed and understaffed. Budget cuts related to the Great Recession mean fewer probation officers, fewer judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, fewer jail guards and fewer support staff in each of those areas.
Consider the challenge for probation officers. Probation officers who ideally should each be well under 100 cases each, in Winnebago County, are handling almost 200 criminals per officer. State law requires each officer be in contact with each client at least once every two weeks. If each probation officer could find each of the 200 and spend an hour with each one, it would take each officer a wall-to-wall 200 hours over two weeks – hardly within the 40-hour workweek.
Winnebago County’s 2010 crime rate (most recent) puts it at number three in Illinois, an improvement from its number one position just two years earlier. But, the public’s perception is quite the opposite: Crime is out of control. We are not safe.
The statistics that make Winnebago County third in the state garner the headlines and capture the public’s perception. It’s easy to understand why elected officials and citizens alike ask: “Why are these criminals still on the street?” And, in the next breath, ask, “Why is the jail so crowded?”
The answers are neither simple nor politically popular.
High crime statistics go hand-in-hand with a complicated stew of poverty, unemployment, mental health challenges, substance abuse, which includes drug dealing, and lack of education. The more challenging each of those five underlying areas, the higher the crime rate.
Winnebago County, with the City of Rockford at its center, is poorer and less educated than Illinois and the United States as a whole. The county’s mental health issues and substance abuse are among the highest in the state; its unemployment rate routinely tops the state and nation.
With those stubbornly challenging demographics, Winnebago County must extend its multi-faceted commitments to criminal justice best practices if it is to find a path to a safe community.
1. The report: How it came about and what I did
2. Executive summary: My ten conclusions and observations from the report
3. An overview: Among the dissonance, agreement
4. The past 40 years: Changes on the national level
5. Winnebago County criminal justice system: From command-and-control to wrap-around-services
6. Crime in Winnebago County
7. The impact of the one-cent public safety sales tax
8. Alternative to incarceration: Better results. Lower costs
9. The Resource Intervention Center: A 21st century model
10. A week at the RIC