(This is the seventh of 10 posts. Each is a chapter from the Building a Safe Community project I did for the county.)
Winnebago County’s public safety sales tax
For more than two decades, Winnebago County walked a tightrope between federal oversight and an overcrowded jail. Built in 1974, that jail could house 180 prisoners. Over the next 20 years, inmate population doubled, then tripled. By 1994, the first federal overcrowding lawsuit had been filed. The county reached a three-year agreement to fix the problem.
When the county failed during and after those three years and the jail population continued to outstrip capacity, another federal lawsuit was filed, this one in March 2000. The federal judge threatened to put a cap on the number of inmates, a step that could have resulted in the release of as many as 300 prisoners and a jail run by the federal court.
By 2002, the county had two choices: take on the lawsuit, lose and have the federal judge run the jail, or ask the taxpayers for money to build a new jail.
The county asked its taxpayers to approve a one-cent on the dollar sales tax to fund a $142 million Criminal Justice Center. The 600,000 square foot center would open with 1,212 beds with the potential to house as many as 1,300.
In turn for approval, the county promised to add criminal justice staffing and to spend “over $2 million” annually on funding for alternative-to-incarceration and rehabilitation programs.
It was not an easy “sell” and it’s likely a similar measure today would fail. The county called on the personal credibility of then-State’s Attorney Paul Logli and Sheriff Dick Meyers and created a community task force that included anti-tax hawk Ted Biondo, now a county board member. They convinced the Rockford Register Star’s Editorial Board to support the tax and then convinced voters.
For many in the community who opposed the building of what they called a bigger warehouse for criminals, the promise of expanded and enhanced alternative programs convinced them to support the tax increase.
On Sept. 14, 2007, the county officially cut the ribbon opening the 1,212-bed Criminal Justice Center. Prisoners had moved in in July. Today, the jail routinely houses just below 1,000 inmates.
Though far from capacity, the steady surge in inmates is discouraging and frustrating. In January 2010, the average daily inmate population was 790. By December 2010, the average population was 955. By late 2011, inmate population was at 985, and topped 1,000 on various days.
It’s safe to say that statistics like those make the “old jail” numbers of 400 inmates sound like a community positively crime-free.
Trends in funding from the jail tax: The original jail tax “One Penny for Public Safety” campaign committed about 35 percent to paying back the construction bonds, about 37 percent to staff and operations at the jail, and about 26 percent to “adequate funding for the criminal justice system, including alternative and rehabilitation programs.”
The 2002 campaign literature said more than $2 million annually would be dedicated to the county’s alternative and rehabilitation programs. Thus far, the county has fulfilled that commitment, but the allocation is steadily decreasing as the effects of the Great Recession take their tolls on sales tax revenues – at the same time as need increases.
In 2009, the county allocated $3,111,401 to its alternative and rehabilitation programs, the Resource Intervention Center, pre-trial programs and on the drug and mental health (TIP) courts.
About half of that ($1,561,401) paid for staff. The remainder ($1,550,000) paid specifically for alternative programming in the jail and at the Resource Intervention Center.
In 2010, staff funding dropped to $1,451,406; and programming funding dropped to $1,000,000. By 2011, programming funding had dropped to $800,000; staff funding increased slightly to $1,509,707.
In 2012, staff funding is budgeted for $1,515,000. Programming funding is budgeted for $835,000.
Funding for the specific alternative programming at the jail and in the Resource Intervention Center – the two models effective in reducing recidivism – has dropped from $1,550,000 in 2009 to $835,000 in 2012 – a decrease of almost 50 percent.
Funding decreases aside, it’s better here than elsewhere: In many ways, Winnebago County’s criminal justice system and, in turn, its alternative-to-incarceration programs are in an enviable position. The one-cent public safety sales tax ensures a relatively steady revenue source separate from declining state and federal grants, declining local property taxes and decreasing state and federal funding.
“Other counties and other state people tell us how lucky we are,” said one alternative programs’ staffer interviewed in August 2011. “They have the same problems we do, but they don’t have a place like the RIC, and they don’t have a jail tax. I can’t tell you how much that means; we couldn’t do without it. And, they wish they had both.”
The steady decrease in revenue and the unlikelihood of a turnaround over the next several years mean Winnebago County is assessing its programs and reallocating limited dollars to programs that get results – and that means toward evidence-based programs like the Resource Intervention Center and the in-jail programs. Community-based programs that cannot pass the strict accountability tests set by the state and the County Board are on the cut list.
Data from the 2008-2011 University of Illinois College of Medicine study of the alternative-to-incarceration programs are being used to shape future funding.
There are national, best-practice models with proven track records and tested accountability procedures. Winnebago County’s criminal justice system has been at the forefront of adopting these models and there are plans in development to do more.
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
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