Give regional jail concept some thought

Lee County needs a new jail. So does Ogle County. Why not work together? Taxpayers would appreciate the savings.

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Lee County is in need of a new jail, according remarks made recently by a Lee County Board member.

That’s nothing new.

About 5 years ago, Sheriff John Varga spoke of the same need.

This time around, Wes Morrissey, a board member from Amboy, proposed the formation of a committee to consider building a new jail. Morrissey made the comments when the county’s Finance Committee met.

Morrissey’s proposal is expected to be discussed further by board members next month.

The jail, built in 1971, was deemed inadequate in a 2008 study by the National Institute of Corrections. Changes in the Illinois County Jail Standards, coupled with more arrests, have caused overcrowding issues in the past.

The cost of a new jail, as estimated by Sheriff Varga half a decade ago, was $15 million. That price tag likely has risen.

Spending lots of money raised from law-abiding taxpayers in order to house lawbreakers is never going to win a county popularity contest.

However, if the money is spent in an innovative and intelligent manner, the public may be more supportive.

We note that Lee County’s neighbor to the north, Ogle County, also is in need of a new jail. Its 1969 lockup is too small, and overcrowding remains a concern.

We’d like to take this opportunity to repeat a suggestion that we made in 2009 and again in 2010: Let Lee and Ogle counties consider building a regional jail and operating it jointly.

The county seats, Dixon and Oregon, are only 15 miles apart, so on the days when prisoners need to go to court, transportation times would be minimal.

The regional jail could utilize closed-circuit television for routine prisoner appearances before a judge.

By sharing costs of construction, operations, maintenance, and staffing, the counties should be able to spend less money overall than if each constructed its own new jail. Taxpayers certainly would like that.

A joint Ogle-Lee board committee could work out the details of where the new jail would be located. Perhaps the issue could be placed before the voters for their assent.

It’s worth noting that Ogle Sheriff Michael Harn is in the midst of making plans for a new administrative building in Oregon at an estimated cost of $4.1 million, so Ogle County is definitely looking toward the future.

A precedent exists for a regional jail. Three counties in southern Illinois, Pulaski, Alexander and Union, have gone together to support the Tri-County Justice and Detention Center.

The Lee-Ogle Regional Detention Center may be just what both counties need. Give it some thought.

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