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Who's being held in contempt?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Chicago Tribune

Lambasting top Cook County officials in court last week, a federal judge couldn't fathom why Board President John Stroger & Co. didn't budget a major increase for new guards at the County Jail.

"The fact that there is nothing in this budget, as proposed so far today, to meet those staffing needs, can only be described as mind-boggling," huffed U.S. District Judge George Marovich. "Do you people ever talk to one another? ... There are some problems here, people, that need to be solved."

There are problems, all right. But Marovich is advocating the wrong remedy.

The sheriff's office needs a bigger payroll like Donald Trump needs a bigger ego.

The sheriff's office has a bloated, unaccountable patronage army. Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan wants even more people. Stroger has griped about those demands but hasn't forced Sheahan to run a more efficient operation.

Judge Marovich, who oversees a consent decree dealing with inmate population and staffing at the jail, thinks new guards would make the facility safer and more humane. There might have been a stronger argument for that a few years ago, when the jail population was soaring. But the world of the sheriff's office is changing.

Consider the trends:

- The average Cook County Jail population has dropped from more than 11,000 in 2002 to about 9,700 today.

- Crime in unincorporated Cook County, over which Sheahan has jurisdiction, has dropped by 28 percent since 1996.

- The unincorporated area patrolled by the sheriff's police has shrunk by 53 percent in the last six years, thanks to annexations by local towns. Cook County had about 160 square miles of unincorporated area in 1997. By 2004, the sheriff's unincorporated jurisdiction had shrunk to about 64 square miles.

- In 1991 the county had 11 uniformed patrol officers for every 10,000 residents in the unincorporated areas. Now it has nearly 26 officers per 10,000 residents.

- Between 1994 and 2004, the sheriff's budget swelled by more than $163 million, or 64 percent.

So the logical response is ... to dramatically expand the sheriff's payroll?

If the sheriff needs more jail guards, he can find them within his budget. According to Commissioner Michael Quigley, who has studied the sheriff's operations, hundreds of new guard positions could be created under the existing budget if the County Board forced the issue.

Sheahan could reallocate money and positions, run a more efficient operation and take advantage of opportunities to save millions of dollars. But he doesn't see it that way.

"We shouldn't have to rob from Peter to pay Paul," said Sheahan spokesman Bill Cunningham. "We're not going to take sheriff's police officers off the street to staff Cook County Jail."

No one is talking about risking public safety. Process serving and janitorial services could be outsourced at a savings. Jail overcrowding could be alleviated by placing more non-violent inmates on electronic monitoring at home. The county-run boot camp costs more than $7 million a year to run. Some of those folks could go to state boot camps.

"Just because you care about law and order, don't believe everything the guy with the badge says," Quigley said. "Otherwise, bring out your checkbook."

Judge Marovich has suggested he will hold board members in contempt if they don't come up with hundreds of new jail guards by late February. It will be a shock if Stroger and Co. work that fast.

No, they don't want to risk the judge's wrath, they don't want to be held in contempt of court.

But the answer isn't to hold the taxpayers in contempt.

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