Feds calling for 35 more jailers in Lake County
BY CARRIE NAPOLEON Post-Tribune correspondent February 22, 2014 10:46PM
Lake County Sheriff, John Buncich, talks to the media about the bad conditions of the Lake County jail and government complex on Thursday, May 5, 2011. | Scott R. Brandush~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 24, 2014 1:16PM
CROWN POINT — Despite continued positive reports from U.S. Department of Justice inspections, federal officials still want to see staffing levels increased at Lake County Jail.
Sheriff John Buncich said the Department of Justice, following its mid-December inspection of the jail, determined the sheriff needed to hire an additional 35 correctional officers. The number is in addition to 30 correctional officers hired in 2013. Those hires were mandated by the Department of Justice as well.
“We asked them to give us an opportunity to do an analysis to see if we can’t find a happy medium,” Buncich said.
Since December, Buncich, his staff and Kenneth A. Ray Justice Services LLC have been involved in analyzing the needs at the jail.
“We came up with a figure of 24. We are going to propose that to them. Enough is enough,” Buncich said.
Each new correctional officer costs about $70,000 between salary and benefits. Twenty-four new officers would cost about $1.7 million. No money is in the sheriff’s budget for the expense.
The majority of the new correctional officers will be needed to staff the psychiatric wing that is under construction and also was part of the Department of Justice mandate. Buncich expects construction of the wing to be complete in June.
Jail operations have been under the watchful eye of the Department of Justice since 2011 following the settlement of a 2007 civil lawsuit filed by inmates claiming inhumane conditions and inadequate healthcare. The Department of Justice outlined 99 deficiencies the jail needed to correct.
Buncich said the jail is about 60 percent in compliance and has made improvements in the vast majority of the remaining deficiencies.
“We got our most recent written report. It’s a good report. It shows consistently higher ratings,” Buncich said.
The sheriff expects the jail will have to go through three more inspections before the Department of Justice ends its oversight.
Buncich said he and the county will be engaged in tough negotiations with the Department of Justice regarding the staffing following the agency’s mid-May inspection.
“Thirty-five we feel is too much, just too many,” Buncich said.
No funding source for the employees has been identified. Buncich expects most of the details to be hashed out during the summer budget sessions for 2015.
Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said by increasing the number of correctional officers at the jail he would expect to see a decrease in the amount of overtime. Other funding could come from new or increased user-based fees.
“We could use some of that to help pay for (the workers),” Bilski said.
Officials also will probably have to tap some of the revenues from the new public safety income tax. How those revenues will be spent in 2015 will be considered during the 2014 budget season and some programs funded with public safety dollars could change.
Bilski said the Department of Justice will have to work with the county to bring the new correctional officers on staff incrementally as funding is identified.
“(Department of Justice officials) have to be a little understanding about the increases,” Bilski said.
Commission chairman Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said the sheriff will have to look at overtime, contractual services and nonessential civilian staff to find places to cut to pay for the new employees. The county does not have a revenue source to put toward the salaries.
Significant cuts have been made in contractual services and he agrees with Bilski that hiring new officers should reduce the need for overtime.
“I’m hoping those reductions get turned in for appropriations,” Repay said.
He said the need for these new correctional officers likely came as no surprise to the sheriff and his administrators and consultants and he would have liked to have seen the information disclosed during the budget negotiations for 2014.