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Fewer people in local jails: New state's attorneys get credit for decline

Fewer people are in the jails in Whiteside and Lee counties this year – a trend that officials attribute to new state’s attorneys.

In Whiteside County, the declining jail population has resulted in enough savings that the sheriff is able to hire another road deputy.

In the November election, Sterling lawyer Trish Joyce was elected to replace Gary Spencer, who didn’t seek re-election after more than three decades as the county’s top prosecutor.

In Lee County, Dixon attorney Anna Sacco-Miller defeated State’s Attorney Henry Dixon.

The winners took office Dec. 1.

In Whiteside County, the jail averaged 118 inmates a day last year, Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said. This year, the number has been about 40 lower. Monday, the jail had 74 inmates.

In Lee County, the jail’s daily population was in the upper 40s for much of last year, Sheriff John Varga said. In March, the average was 39.

Wilhelmi credits Joyce with reducing the inmate population.

“We had a number of stagnant cases,” he said. “A lot of it had to do with the preparation for the [Nicholas] Sheley trial. The state’s attorney’s office was backed up a bit. She is doing a fantastic job. She is aggressive with getting cases resolved.”

Last week, Wilhelmi asked the County Board’s Executive Committee to allow him to hire another sheriff’s deputy. He said he could pay for the position because of a reduction in spending for food and other supplies in the jail, a benefit of having fewer inmates. With the new road deputy, the county will have 13.

The Sheriff’s Department plans to keep the same number of jailers, Wilhelmi said.

“If you look at mandatory staffing, we are probably at the level we should be now,” he said. “When we had 120 people, we were understaffed.”

Lee County Sheriff Varga said cases have been moving a “little bit quicker” since the beginning of the year, resulting in a smaller jail population.

State’s attorneys, he said, have different philosophies on how to handle cases, which affects the jail population. For instance, when Paul Whitcombe was state’s attorney a few years ago, the jail was filled to capacity, the sheriff said.

He said he expects to see the jail population rise as the weather warms up.

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