News Local/State

County Board Views Jail Consolidation Plan, And Worries About The Cost

A county employee writes down points brought up by members of the public at the Champaign County Board meeting.

A county employee writes down points brought up by members of the public speaking about a plan to consolidate county jail operations at Thursday night's Champaign County Board meeting in Urbana. Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

 An updated proposal for county jail consolidation was brought before the full Champaign County Board for the first time Thursday night. Now county board members must decide how to deal with both a pressing need --- and a daunting price tag.

The plan, from Reifsteck Reid, the firm of Champaign architect Charles Reifsteck, is an update of a previous plan presented to the county board in 2015. As outlined by Reifsteck at Thursday night’s meeting, the plan calls for closing the rundown jail and sheriff’s office built in the 1980’s in downtown Urbana. The 1990’s satellite jail in east Urbana would renovated and expanded to replace the downtown jail’s capacity and the sheriff’s offices. In addition, its design would allow flexibility in separating inmate populations and providing space for inmate visitations and programs.

County board members are trying to come to grips with its cost: $47 million (compared to $32 million for the 2015 jail plan) to close the rundown jail and sheriff’s office in downtown Urbana, and enlarge and modernize the newer satellite jail. The rebuilt jail’s capacity would be 283 inmates, twelve less than the two present jails.

But the project’s estimated cost is a major sticking point: $47 million. Reifsteck told the county board that as an estimate, the actual construction cost could range from $42 to $52 million.

“I don’t believe there’s support for a $47 million project by either party,” said Urbana Democrat Steve Summers, vice-chair of the county board’s Facilities Committee. “There’s simply not the backing for that at this time,” he added, saying that the initial agenda that had his committee recommending a vote to endorse the plan was “radically incorrect. We’re simply not at that point.”

But Champaign Republican Jim McGuire warned of the dangers of waiting too long to act on the county jail. He noted that if the downtown jail deteriorates further, a judge could order it closed, and the county would have to pay other counties to hold some of its inmates --- on top of the cost of jail construction.

“We can’t continue to wait for the downtown jail to collapse around our ears,” said McGuire. “I think we need to move forward and get this accomplished.”

Besides their own discussion, the county board heard comments on the jail plan from seven members of the public, all of whom opposed it.

Those seven included James Kilgore, a local advocate for alternatives to prison.

Kilgore dismissed the jail plan’s proposals for more facilities were inmate could receive mental health care, take classes, and meet with family and attorneys.

“The starting point should not be, how do we make people more comfortable in the jail, how do we make jail more efficient,” said Kilgore, who noted his own past years in incarceration. The starting point should be, how do we keep people out of jail.”

Kilgore and other jail plan opponents said that the need for prisons could be sharply reduced by programs and policies addressing homelessness, mental health, prohibitively high bail and racial disparities in sentencing.

Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman voiced his support for the plan before the county board. While agreeing with the need for more preventive programs and reforms, he argued that the county still had an immediate need for an upgraded jail.

“I also have people who have pulled the trigger out in our community, who are shooting at other people, who are violently sexually assaulting others in our community that don’t need to be out running around,” said Heuerman.

County Executive Darlene Kloeppel says past county boards have talked about upgrading the jail, but that previous discussions had “floundered” due to concerns over money or other county priorities. She expects jail consolidation to show up on the agenda at future county board or facilities committee meetings, or at a special study session that would be called by County Board Chairman Giraldo Rosales. But Kloeppel says nothing is scheduled yet.