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Oscar Martinez

SCHERERVILLE — Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez expects the county jail, long a black eye for the sheriff's department, to reach a positive milestone come this May.

Speaking at a gathering of the Lake County Advancement Committee on Friday, Martinez said he is optimistic the jail will reach full compliance with a 2011 settlement agreement with the Justice Department.

“[Federal inspectors] are going to come this spring, and hopefully we’ll be in compliance with everything,” Martinez said. “After so many years of being under Department of Justice oversight, I’m very proud that after a year and a half we’ve been able to do that.”

Martinez cited improvements to mental health care at the jail, which federal inspectors described as “alarming and extremely problematic” only a year ago. Staffing shortages, another long-standing problem, have been alleviated by salary increases for correctional officers that bring Lake County in line with the national average, he added.

"What happens when you pay so low?” Martinez asked. “You don’t get qualified people and you have a high turnover rate. So now with this pay increase we get higher retention [rates] and better recruitment.”

Martinez also touched on his efforts to replace the department’s 40-year-old armored rescue vehicle, dismissing criticism that it’s an unnecessary expense on “military” equipment.

“The armored vehicle is not an offensive tool — it’s a tool to protect lives,” he said, noting that it will double as a certified ambulance to treat wounded officers and civilians alike.

Even with more spending on salaries and a $350,000 armored vehicle, the sheriff's department has stayed in the black by finding savings elsewhere in its $42 million budget, such as outsourcing food service at the county jail, Martinez said.

“It’s about management and priorities,” he said. “My staff has done so much in the past year and a half — within budget.”

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