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Cook County Board shows ignorance over guard hirings

Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Daily Southtown
Editorial

THE ISSUE: An angry federal judge orders Cook County Board to find a way to hire more guards for the overcrowded county jail. Proposed budget contained no new hires.
WE SAY: County officials deserved scolding. If board looks closely enough and trims some fat, it should be able to find money for extra guards in this year's budget.

"Mind-boggling" was how U.S. District Judge George Marovich described the Cook County Board's refusal to include more guards for the overcrowded Cook County Jail in its annual budget, despite a requirement to do so under a court decree.

Join the club, Judge Marovich. Our mind has been boggled by the actions of the Cook County Board for years. It doesn't surprise us that they've ignored the decree this year. It disappoints us, but it doesn't surprise us.

The decree to set adequate staffing levels for the jail was issued in 1982, eight years after a class-action lawsuit was filed by inmates against the county. The John Howard Association, the prison watchdog group that serves as court monitor, claims the county has failed to live up to the terms of the decree. Marovich, who oversees the decree, seemed to agree last week. He threatened the county board with contempt if it does not include more money in its proposed budget for prison guards by February.

The judge issued a similar threat last year before the board reluctantly added 283 guards. Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan had requested $15 million this year for 250 new guards, about a third of the number of extra guards that the court monitors and a panel commissioned by the board said were needed.

Cook County Board President John Stroger and other county board members argued that existing revenues make additional hires difficult, despite a proposal Stroger's backing that would increase the county's cigarette tax and implement a hotel tax.

Marovich didn't order that a certain number of guards be hired, but he made it clear he wanted to see a hiring plan by February or he told county officials to be prepared to suffer the consequences.

Good for the judge. We've said repeatedly that the county board needs to take a closer look at its budget to pay for the essentials it is supposed to be providing its constituents. There is a lot of fat that can be trimmed, enough in our opinion that the new cigarette and hotel taxes aren't needed. If the county can't find money for more guards in its $3.1 billion proposed budget, maybe Marovich can take a look and make some suggestions.

It's typical of Cook County that 23 years after a consent decree is issued, officials still don't understand what it means and have to be scolded by a judge.

Some taxpayers may not care if the county jail is staffed adequately. That's an insult to the overworked guards on duty now at the jail. And, as strange as it may seem to some, it's unfair to the inmates, who, despite their stations in life, have rights too.



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