Council abolishes work-release program to fund federal mandate

2014-05-13T15:30:00Z 2014-05-14T15:51:12Z Council abolishes work-release program to fund federal mandateBy Bill Dolan, (219) 662-5328

CROWN POINT | Lake County officials will close the sheriff's work-release program and lay off its 28 county employees to find the money to hire new corrections officers and mental health professionals to serve jail inmates.

"This is the only option," Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said Tuesday after the County Council's unanimous, if reluctant, vote.

"No one takes pleasure in reducing any jobs," said Councilman Jerome Prince, D-Gary. "But we have had to reduce 300 other jobs in the last few years. Our responsibility is to remain fiscally sound."

This move permits the county to comply with a federal Department of Justice requirement to hire 24 additional county jail corrections officers and three mental health professionals without boosting the county government's payroll by more than $871,000 annually.

Sheriff John Buncich, who was in Washington, D.C., attending a police memorial service, had his attorney, John Bushemi, express opposition to abolishing a work-release program that keeps 77  offenders under minimum security.

He said the inmates contribute $300,000 of their wages to government coffers and perform an estimated $400,000 in community service work annually.

The inmates will remain in dormitories inside the Parramore building under the supervision of Lake County Community Corrections, a state-funded program that provides residence and oversight for state prison inmates.

The county created the work-release center in 1985 to reduce overcrowding in the county jail. It had a budget this year of $1.1 million. Bushemi said it is unlikely those laid off will find work elsewhere in county government, since most are older than 55 and lack the physical needs required of corrections officers.

The vote was the first in four years to require the sheriff to reorganize his department's budget rather than raiding county government's cash reserves or passing a new tax.

The jail's budget has grown an additional $9.9 million annually since the Justice Department cited the jail in 2009 as so deficient in health care and sanitation it violated inmates' civil rights.

Buncich said last week the Justice Department would ask a judge to hold the County Council in contempt if it didn't hire the corrections officers by Tuesday. Bushemi said the council could have used the county's new income tax to hire the officers and retain his work-release program.

"Our only other choice was put everybody else on furlough or go to war against the Department of Justice, and we will lose that fight," Bilski said. "We had to speak out for the taxpayers of Lake County."

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