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Stroger rebuked over hiring
U.S. judge orders contempt hearing on jail guard issue

Thursday, December 29, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by John McCormick, Tribune staff reporter

Calling it mind-boggling that Cook County Board President John Stroger has failed to include additional jail guards in his 2006 budget proposal, a federal judge scolded county commissioners Wednesday and ordered a contempt hearing for late February.

"Zero is not the number," U.S. District Judge George Marovich repeated several times, as Stroger and six other commissioners sat in his courtroom.

Marovich, who oversees a consent decree governing inmate population and staffing at the Cook County Jail, said he realizes funding for inmates does not represent a "sympathetic constituency."

But he also suggested he could order hiring if the county fails to show progress in adding the hundreds of additional workers he believes are needed to make the jail safe and humane.

"They are there, and you have to take care of them whether you like it or not," he said.

A report released earlier this month showed the jail needs 668 more correctional officers--a 23 percent increase--to operate effectively and meet requirements of the federal decree. The report, prepared for the county at a cost of $300,000, also called for the end of so-called "cross-watching," a practice where a guard keeps an eye on more than one living area.

The lawsuit involving jail staffing, first filed in 1974, is a class action in which all inmates being held for trial are listed as plaintiffs. The John Howard Association, the court-appointed jail monitor, maintains the county has failed to live up to the terms of the 1982 consent decree because it has routinely understaffed an overcrowded jail.

Sheriff Michael Sheahan, also present at the hearing, had asked for about 250 new positions for the Department of Corrections when he submitted his 2006 budget request in September. At a cost of $10 million, he sought to add 188 jail guards and 54 workers for alternative treatment programs.

But Stroger's proposed budget contained no additional funding for guards. When asked by the judge to explain his budget, Stroger responded by saying that there is now "more hostility among the commissioners" than at any time before.

Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), who also attended the hearing and is backing a presidency challenge to Stroger, said that if any additional guards are hired, they should come from existing funding for the sheriff's department, which he called "bloated and patronage-filled."

Under similar pressure from the judge last year, the county added 283 new jail positions, at an annual cost of about $19 million. Marovich indicated he would accept gradual increases in jail staffing, but he wants to see annual progress.

"This is an election year," he said, noting the political pressures of cutting programs or raising taxes. "But I'm not running for anything."

After meeting privately with lawyers and elected officials, Marovich scheduled a contempt hearing for Feb. 21, the day before the county is expected to vote on its annual budget.

Outside court, Stroger said additional guards were not included in his budget because he could not find enough votes for passing "new revenue sources," which he said would be needed to fix the jail problem.

Stroger also hinted that there might be room to cut elsewhere in the sheriff's budget, specifically mentioning the possibility that fewer sheriff's police officers might be needed because of a decline in unincorporated land in the county. "I don't particularly concur with that," he said.

Sheahan said the jail, now with about 8,800 inmates, remains safe. But he said the lack of additional guards threatens inmate and guard safety and makes the county more vulnerable to inmate lawsuits.

"We're down in numbers and thank God," he said of the current jail population.

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