MARC CHASE: Jail mandate unshackles good government opportunity

2014-05-15T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Jail mandate unshackles good government opportunityMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
May 15, 2014 12:00 am  • 

I could hear the collective gasps from a number of Lake County Government Complex officials earlier this week, and my office is several hundred yards away with sealed windows.

The cause of this county government chagrin? The patronage army of county employees is set to shrink by 28 as the Lake County Council voted to eliminate the sheriff's work-release program — all to make budgetary room for new jail guards and other staff reportedly required by a federal mandate.

To the taxpayer, this may seem like a bit of a shell game — cutting one program to fatten up another part of the local system of incarcerating criminals.

But what the County Council — possibly unwittingly — did was unshackle an opportunity for more efficient governance of the Lake County Jail and related programs.

For years, the sheriff's work-release program, which allows some inmates convicted of minor crimes to leave lockup for work every day, has co-existed in the same building with the Community Corrections program. Community Corrections is a state-run program, essentially performing the same work-release function for inmates of the state prison system.

For years, I've scratched my head wondering why both programs — under the exact same roof and performing nearly identical functions — couldn't be consolidated into one program.

Now the opportunity has arrived.

The council voted Tuesday to close the county program and lay off the 28 employees who run the 175-bed — with currently 77 participating offenders — sheriff's work-release.

It was their solution to freeing up the $871,000 in funds the county estimates it will need to hire 24 additional jail officers and three mental health professionals. Those employees are needed for the county to comply with a U.S. Department of Justice mandate aimed at correcting deficiencies within the Lake County Jail, according to a consultant.

In turn, the state's Community Corrections program stepped up to the plate, agreeing to take on the cases of the 77 offenders in the county work-release program as an emergency fix.

But this shouldn't just be a temporary Band-Aid. County and state officials should keep talking.

If Community Corrections can take over the entire space now shared by the two separate programs, the state program should consider taking on future jail inmates deemed a fit for work-release.

The county work-release program has helped alleviate jail overcrowding while keeping participating inmates working.

Those inmates contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages back into county government coffers and perform $400,000 annually in community service, according to the sheriff. Such revenue could help the state offset the cost of taking on county work-release inmates.

The circumstances leading to this consolidation may have been forced by the need to meet a federal mandate.

But now the opportunity to carry the consolidation beyond the cases of the 77 current work-release inmates is here. County and state corrections officials should seize any opportunity for efficiency with both hands.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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