The racial disparity in the inmate population of Champaign County jail is significant. New jail construction would almost assuredly be used to house an even larger number of even more racially disparate individuals. Evidence-based alternatives are available, and have been suggested by various groups since at least 2012. However, efforts to implement these alternatives have been stymied by repeated attempts on behalf of the county Sherrif to use monies that would otherwise go to anti-incarceration programs on massive construction projects at the county jail. 

First, we need to know exactly how incongruous the numbers are. Champaign County is 72.9% white, and 13.1% African-American. The percentage of Black people in its jail, however, is consistently over 50%, and often tops 70%. For years, grassroots efforts to create alternatives to incarceration in Champaign County have been fought by the repeated efforts of the County Sheriff to sink tens of millions of our tax dollars into a county jail, the primary purpose of which is apparently to punish and impoverish poor people of color. The struggle continues with this fall’s battle over budget priorities, with the Sheriff yet again touting new jail cells as a “humanitarian” measure to address mental illness and substance abuse. At the same time, the county’s Racial Justice Task Force is set to release a report detailing racial inequities in the local criminal justice system and recommending measures that would lower the jail population and result in the prevention of violence.

This is the newest battle in a fight that has been going on for years. In 2012, in response to the Sheriff’s requests for an increase in jail capacity, the County Board hired a consulting group, the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP), to investigate the county’s criminal justice infrastructure needs. That same year, the county also convened a Community Justice Task Force (CJTF) to make recommendations concerning the local justice system. Despite having different mandates, both reports were issued in 2013 and advocated for reforming practices of policing and incarceration, as opposed to simply expanding the jail and hiring more officers. On the basis of these reports, and in response to the grassroots work of local anti-incarceration group No More Jails, now known as Build Programs Not Jails (BPNJ), the Board denied the Sheriff his jail funding.

In 2015, the Sheriff’s Office failed in a second attempt to levy funds for jail expansion, a failure owed largely to the massive $31 million price tag put forward by consultants Kimme et al. After this second failed attempt, they changed their strategy. That summer, Deputy Sheriff Allen Jones gathered together local social service providers to begin discussing plans for a crisis drop-off center that could be used by law enforcement as an alternative to booking people suffering from mental health and substance abuse conditions into the jail. Jones was successful in getting a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to begin a planning process for “jail diversion”, and in 2016 he went forward with this process, working with a pared-down version of his original group, known as the Crisis Response Planning Committee (CRPC).

Also in 2015, a number of community groups pressured the County Board in a series of heated meetings to follow through on the CJTF’s recommendation to create a Racial Justice Task Force (RJTF). This task force would investigate and propose solutions for the racial disparity in the County’s criminal justice system. Members of the Board were reluctant to directly address criminal justice in the mission of this task force, but despite delays, the RJTF was convened and began its work in early 2016. Meanwhile, from December 2015 through June 2016, three local Black residents facing nonviolent charges died in custody while in the jail: Toya Frazier, Paul Clifton, and Veronica Horstead.

In 2016, along with County Administrator Rick Snider, the Sheriff made yet another play for funding. This time around, he proposed a massive omnibus facilities spending package that would tie funding for the public nursing home and other urgent low-cost projects to a large allocation of money for jail construction. Along with suggesting that funds might eventually go to a crisis center for substance and mental health treatment, explicitly given a low priority by Snider, the Sheriff attempted to humanize this latest jail upgrade through including medical and mental health facilities (which he forgot to mention wouldn’t be staffed), and beautified waiting and visiting areas—all despite declining arrest numbers. This package would be funded through an increase in sales taxes, and was proposed as a referendum on the November ballot. Facing opposition from anti-incarceration progressives and anti-tax conservatives, this referendum was defeated by a wide margin.

At its April 2017 meeting, the members of the Sheriff’s CRPC group, which was initially formed around the idea of “jail diversion”, conveniently concluded that the county jail is the best place to offer treatment services. Now pitching a rehabilitation of the crumbling downtown jail, and seeking to capitalize on the recent uptick in local gun violence, the Sheriff is once again packaging a proposal for jail building as an effort to locate social services within the jail, ignoring the range of negative consequences (including health risks) associated with serving time, particularly for low-income people of color—the jail’s primary clients.

In the meantime, the Racial Justice Task Force has nearly finished its final report. Members of the RJTF came before the County Board on August 24th to present ideas for spending that would seek to reduce violence through measures to address the significant breach of trust between the area’s various police forces and many of its Black citizens. Other members of the public addressing the Board that night were there to protest the large salary being offered to the newly-created position of County Executive, and suggested directing funds instead to efforts proposed by members of the RJTF, as well as by members of BPNJ who were there in support.

In the next month, the County Board will be deciding how to spend nearly $1.2 million of revenue from a sales tax earmarked for public safety, money that has been freed up from retired construction bonds. This is a tiny slice of the county’s overall “justice and public safety” budget of almost $27 million. Champaign County’s low-income Black community has a number of problems related to cycles of poverty. One of the main ones, along with a clear history of housing segregation, is the prevalence of aggressive policing and detention. The Board can begin helping this population by attempting to offer assistance instead of more punishment. By offering alternatives to incarceration and basic survival resources. Local residents can write to their Board members, or address the Board at public meetings this month and encourage them to do the right thing. The public can comment at the Committee of the Whole meeting on the 12th, or the full Board meeting on the 21st. There is a budget hearing without public input on the 26th, and another budget meeting on the 28th.