Here we go again with the headlines about too many criminals in the Winnebago County jail. And the suggestion that we ought hire an “outside” consultant to tell us why the county is bucking national trends with more, not fewer, inmates.
Over the weekend, the Rockford Register Star’s Kevin Haas reported that the jail population continues to increase. A county board member wanted to know why. Wrote Haas:
“Board member John F. Sweeney wants the county to tap outside help to investigate why the local population continues to grow despite the national trend.
“Sweeney said at an Operations Committee meeting Tuesday that the county needs to bring in an expert who has no connections to Winnebago County or its political leaders. Committee members agreed to explore the idea.”
I’ll assume in the absence of information to the contrary that Sweeney could be referring to me. The county released my multi-month research report in April. The county paid me $10,941.68 to explore the complex inter-workings of the Winnebago County criminal justice system.
The report outlines the complicated causes of an escalating jail population and the solutions already in place — and suggests ones needed for the future. It also references the successes in states such as New York and California in reducing jail and prison populations and providing alternative-to-incarceration programming.
Inmate population in Winnebago County is rising for complex reasons, including:
- aggressive policing on the streets (that’s a good thing, right?);
- an over-burdened prosecutor-defense-court system (we need more prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, judges); and,
- an insufficient number of — and funding for — alternative-to-incarceration programs, “wrap-around” specialty courts, substance abuse and mental health treatment.
I’m all for hiring a consultant to dig deeper and to provide action plans for addressing all three of those causes — if the county board actually plans to implement those solutions. But if what Sweeney and the Operations Committee seek are “silver bullet” solutions or finger-pointing to one or two people to blame, they’ll be wasting taxpayer time and money.
There’s no lack of national research to explain why other states are successful in reducing inmate population. States with declining inmate populations have done two things:
- They have replaced the old-fashioned “command-and-control” model that continues to dominate the political thinking in Winnebago County; and,
- They have aggressively funded their criminal justice systems and alternative-to-incarceration programs.
Winnebago County’s alternative-to-incarceration programs are national models. They work. They save the county money. They reduce recidivism, a major cause of jail overcrowding. Best of all, they turn jail inmates into contributing citizens.
The experts who can address Sweeney’s concerns are right here in River City. They’re the chief judges, past and present. The defense attorneys and prosecutors. They are the men and women of the Office of Court Services. They are the experienced staff at our local mental health and substance abuse organizations. They are the Resource Intervention Center administrators — and the men and women who have graduated from those programs.
We have nationally-recognized criminal justice experts right here, including two former chief judges, Katherine Zenoff and Janet Holmgren. Other states ask them for advice. Why in the world aren’t we willing to trust our own?
Go ahead and hire a outside consultant with no so-called ties to the community, the county or its political leaders. Go ahead and spend the money if you’re really serious about funding and implementing the resulting specific action plans.
But if you’re going in search of a quick, cheap, headline-grabbing fix, best not waste the money.
P.S. The county paid me for the report. The county did not pay me for this post, nor do they know I am writing it. You can read the entire Building a Safe Community report online. The link goes to the last of 10 posts. Scroll down for links to the first nine chapters.
And, finally, to the WNTA radio callers who think I don’t live here: I do, full time. I don’t split my time between here and Key West. I am selling our home of 21 years. Eventually, I will relocate. Today, it is raining outside my kitchen window on Montlake Drive in Rockford.