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Judge blasts county on jail

Thursday, December 29, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

A federal judge blasted Cook County leaders Wednesday for failing to work together to adequately staff Cook County Jail.

In a near repeat of a hearing last year, U.S. District Judge George Marovich warned Cook County Board President John Stroger and the county board that he would consider contempt proceedings against them if they didn't include more jail guards in the 2006 budget.

No new guards are included in the proposed budget.

"The fact that there is nothing in this budget, as proposed so far today, to meet those staffing needs, can only be described as mindboggling," Marovich said to Stroger and the six commissioners who attended the hearing. "Do you people ever talk to one another? ... There are some problems here, people, that need to be solved."

It would cost about $15 million to hire 250 guards, which is the number requested by Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan and generally seen as an accepted minimum. The judge did not state a figure in open court.

Stroger laid the blame for the lack of hires on board members who refused to back any tax increases. He said it would be up to finance committee chairman John Daley and the board to find the money for a solution.

"We didn't have the money (to add guards)," Stroger said. "I will do what is necessary, but if I don't have nine votes, I can't do anything."

Marovich oversees conditions at the jail under the settlement terms of a 1974 civil rights lawsuit filed by inmates.

Last year, he criticized Stroger and commissioners for not dealing honestly with the problem and failing to add enough staff. Under threat of contempt proceedings, the county board agreed to hire 283 guards despite a tight budget.

The county argued the 750 new guards that court-appointed jail monitors said were still needed was an inflated figure. The board commissioned a study of jail staffing, completed this month, which said between 668 and 798 new guards were needed.

Marovich said since the county's own experts agree on the number and since budget planner had a year to get ready, there was no excuse for not including more guards in the budget. He said the county could agree to hire a few hundred guards per year or he could order officials to hire all 750 at once.

"It's not like you have a lot of choices, and it doesn't really bother me if you don't like the choices," Marovich said.

Marovich said he was aware of the political problems of budgeting, but considered them "a non-factor."

When Stroger tried to explain to the judge that he couldn't get the tax increases he needed because of "hostility" from the board, Marovich cut him off in frustration.

"It's an election year, John!" the judge said.

Attorneys for the inmates pressed for a contempt hearing, but Marovich agreed to hold a telephone conference with all parties Feb. 21, so that county officials could have a chance to work through the budget process.

In comments to the judge, both Stroger and Sheahan pointedly complained "some commissioners" didn't attend the hearing and therefore didn't take the matter seriously. It was a criticism of Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), Stroger's opponent for county president.

Claypool said he has been to past hearings, wasn't asked to attend this one by the judge, and had a conflicting event. He said he will reintroduce a plan shot down last year that will move sworn deputies into the jail by taking them out of clerical jobs and hiring lower-paid clerical workers with less training.

"A lot of us have offered different solutions to solve this problem without a tax increase," Claypool said. "President Stroger doesn't want to do anything that upsets the status quo."

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