By BRIAN BIRDNOW
With 2019 winding down, much of the focus of the St. Charles County Council meeting on Nov. 25 was dedicated to the county’s 2020 budget for the upcoming year. The work session before the general meeting had been convened to discuss and debate the budget, but became an unexpected conference concerning the ongoing feasibility studies for expanding – presumably improving – the St. Charles County Corrections center.
JoAnn Leykam, the county director of administration, outlined a number of emerging problems, including that the bail reform movement of the last few years has changed the nature of the correctional system in numerous ways. First of all, many figures inside the criminal justice system, including prosecutors, public defenders, and magistrates have changed their minds on the nature of criminality. The trend of allowing non-violent offenders to remain free pending trial has had two major impacts on jail populations.
There are fewer prisoners, but those who are being held are in large measure dangerous and often violent offenders who require close supervision.
Daniel Keen, director of corrections, also pointed out the limitations of the current physical state of the county corrections center. The building was constructed in 1989, and much of the wiring, plumbing, heating, and other utilities are original to the facility. Keen added the facility has outdated communication and security elements. The institution, built to house 218 inmates, now has 528 beds and subsidiary duties such as food preparation and laundry services are now working at over twice the planned capacity.
The current facility has no central elevator system and, according Keen, the county is in technical violation of national standards that mandate inmates have access to natural light, and that many of the cells lack sunlight. He also pointed out the difficult working conditions for guards and that the facility was already understaffed. Keen informed the council that the county must increase the target capacity for the county jail to 560 inmates within the next ten years, citing concern that bail reform means future prisoners will be more dangerous, resulting in an concomitant need for increased medical and mental health accommodations.
The meeting then proceeded to feasibility studies and possible solutions to the growing problem. Councilmember Joe Cronin [District 1] argued that instead of buying new space, changing policies and ending housing arrangements, the county should try to expedite the process of moving people through the criminal justice system. Councilmember and former judge Nancy Schneider [District 6] pointed out that this was easier said than done.
Councilmember Mike Elam [District 3] argued that the current facility is obsolete and any possible expansion of the space is impossible due to its downtown St. Charles location.
When discussion commenced regarding possible action, Keen noted that the studies done in the recent past had suggested a cost of $136 million dollars for a new facility, at least. Subsidiary expenses like land costs and other incidentals would also need to be figured into the final projections.
While Elam supported building a new facility, other council members leaned toward preserving the current space, but vacating the first and second levels of the current facility to add amenities like bridges leading into the prisoner compartments and improved security systems. This plan, estimated to cost less than building a new facility, but councilmember Joe Brazil [District 2] said that definite cost estimates are needed and a plan to pay for any expansion project must be spelled out in detail, before a project is given the green light.
The matter will be revisited, along with a more thorough consideration of the proposed 2020 budget, at the next work session on Monday, Dec. 2, after press time.