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Judge to move on jail guards; Contempt hearing set for February

Friday, December 24, 2004
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

A federal judge Thursday ordered a contempt hearing to determine how many new guards need to be hired at Cook County Jail after County Board President John Stroger failed to reach an agreement with Sheriff Michael Sheahan and other parties.

Lawyers who represent pretrial detainees said Stroger reneged on a deal to hire 283 more guards in 2005.

A spokeswoman for Stroger said there was a "staff misunderstanding" over the number and that Stroger has pledged to put 200 new guards into next year's budget, which lawyers representing the detainees say is not enough.

The adequacy of guard staffing is one issue monitored under a 22-year-old Duran consent decree governing jail conditions.

U.S. District Judge George Marovich scheduled a contempt hearing for Feb. 10-11 to determine how many guards are required and, if necessary, to order the County Board to hire them.

Marovich said he was disappointed that the lack of an agreement left him no alternative but to force the adversarial proceedings.

"Maybe President Stroger was misunderstood, but I want to make sure that I am not," Marovich said.

Marovich noted that a contempt hearing, which will require expert witnesses and extra lawyers' time, would cost the county additional money that could otherwise be put toward hiring more guards.

Robert Lehrer, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said the sides could still possibly reach an agreement and avoid the contempt hearing.

The situation shows a lack of planning on Stroger's part, said County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), who attended Thursday's court hearing.

"It is reflective of the president's failure to anticipate these things," said Suffredin, who is considered one of many potential contenders for Stroger's job in the 2006 election.

Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), who also attended the hearing and is weighing a run for the board presidency, said the apparent confusion over the negotiated agreement "indicates to me that the president's office is not operating in sync."

Stroger has yet to release a proposed 2005 budget despite the fiscal year starting on Dec. 1. His staff on Thursday started calling commissioners to set up private briefings next week, an indication the budget is nearly completed.

Stroger's lawyer on Thursday said a staffing study of the jail could play an important role in the contempt hearing.

Patrick Driscoll, the chief civil lawyer in the state's attorney's office, said figures show that on any day, 46 guards who have no more time off do not go to work.

Driscoll said the figure raises questions about management of the jail that could be relevant in light of the court's pressure to hire more officers.

Bill Cunningham, a spokesman for Sheahan, said the "lion's share" of those call-ins reflect people on disability or emergency family medical leave.

"It's a smokescreen" to deflect attention from the need for more guards, Cunningham said.



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