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Candidates for sheriff in Lake County eye jail upgrades, crime

Dan Bursac

Dan Bursac

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Updated: June 5, 2014 6:02AM



Three Democrats and two Republicans are vying to become their party’s nominee to be the next Lake County sheriff, and whoever prevails will find a lot on his plate from his first day in office.

Issues faced today will still be issues in January: satisfying a federal mandate to improve jail conditions and combating a drug and gang problem that has wracked cities with violence.

Sheriff John Buncich, a Democrat, is running for re-election and his fourth term overall. He previously served from 1994-2002. Richard Ligon, who finished a close second in the 2010 Democratic primary, is a U.S. Army veteran and former federal law enforcement officer. Democrat Oscar Martinez is in his 21st year as a Lake County Sheriff’s officer, and he helped establish the county drug highway interdiction team.

On the Republican side, Dan Bursac, a Lake County Sheriff’s officer, is running in his fourth primary election. Political newcomer John Ramos is the training director for the East Chicago Police Department.

Lake County Jail

The U.S. Department of Justice found 99 deficiencies at the jail in 2009, in particular unsanitary and unsafe living conditions, and systematic violations of the constitutional rights of inmates in regard to medical and mental health care and suicide prevention.

Buncich said the mandate is about 60 percent complete, but they still must hire about 24 additional correctional officers, which has put a strain on the department budget.

“I went in the first day and there were just terrible conditions; I couldn’t believe it had gotten that bad,” Buncich said. “It’s been the major issue I’ve dealt with this term. We’re close to getting everything done and satisfying the issues.

Bursac said he wants to move the jail beyond the recommendations by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I want to go one step further and get accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement,” he said. “If achieve that we’ll definitely get out from underneath the DOJ’s scrutiny, and we wouldn’t fall back into the situation that got us here.”

On March 31, the jail received accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care for its Standard for Health Services in Jails.

A major issue with training and retaining good correctional officers is the low pay, Martinez said.

“They earn 33 percent below the cost of living, with no incentives or chance for advancement,” Martinez said. “It’s unacceptable that what they earn in their first year is the same at 20 years of experience. “

Martinez said he is concerned more than $100,000 was spent on consultants and wonders why the jail is on its third warden in three years.

Ligon said he wants to evaluate the necessity of various jail consultants. He would enroll the inmates in the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges to achieve cost savings.

“Other states have tried it and it’s been successful,” he said.

Ramos said many of the problems were due to a lack of adequate training, so if the department can shore that up it shouldn’t be too long before federal oversight is removed.

“The DOJ report said the training was inadequate if there was any at all,” Ramos said. “It was a domino effect. People were being trained by people who were never trained correctly. If you give the right training to your personnel and implement it well, we can meet DOJ requirements and stop the lawsuits that are happening.”

Drugs and gangs

Crime related to drugs and gangs is a rising problem in Lake County.

Ligon said the county should work with cities like Gary to tear down abandoned buildings, which are magnets for crime and the drug trade and establish prevention programs for youth.

“When I was with Operation Crackdown in the 1990s, we tore down crack houses in Gary and it got done by getting the military involved and Rep. Pete Visclosky secured funding,” Ligon said.

Bursac said the county needs to put more officers on patrol.

“The minimum staffing for patrol is six cars on road, when we have 170 officers,” Bursac said. “The fact that we can only muster up six? That’s ridiculous... It’s particularly a problem in south county, where it was once farmland, but now it’s a bunch of subdivisions. Response times can suffer.”

Buncich said the gang problem was serious in his previous terms as sheriff, but the violence has escalated with the advent of renegade gangs.

“It’s a matter of keeping a lid on the problem,” Buncich said. “We work with Gary, East Chicago, and Hammond, and heroin is major problem again.

“With street sweeps, we look at hotbeds where gangs are congregating, and looking for individuals with warrants. It’s sending a message to communities.”

Martinez has seen firsthand how drugs tear apart families and communities, working on the county’s narcotics squad for 17 years. But he was transferred out of narcotics about three years ago, and he insists it was due to politics.

“I’m not being put where I can use my training and experience lies to benefit the taxpayers,” Martinez said.

Ramos praised the work the county’s interdiction unit as well as local gang and narcotics units.

“It’s the bread and butter of what happens on the street,” Ramos said. “That’s how East Chicago was able to bring down part of gang problem, by hitting them under RICO statute and the crime rate dropped dramatically.



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