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Fed deadline looms for Lake to hire jail staff

Updated: June 10, 2014 6:55AM



Crown Point — Time is running out on officials to approve funding the 24 correctional officers and three mental health professionals the Department of Justice has ordered to be hired for the Lake County Jail.

Sheriff John Buncich and his attorney, John Bushemi, appeared before the Lake County Council in a work session Thursday to request the hires and remind members the Department of Justice has set a May 13 deadline for the positions to be approved.

Bushemi circulated an email from Kenneth Ray, with jail consulting firm Kenneth A. Ray Justice Services LLC, outlining the DOJ’s demands. In the email, Ray said if the hires are not approved by the Tuesday deadline the DOJ intends to cancel the scheduled May 27 inspection of the jail to schedule a hearing with a judge in the case.

“(The) DOJ will file a contempt motion and seek enforcement orders from the judge to compel Lake County to hire 35 officers and the 3 QMHPs (qualified mental health professionals),” Ray wrote.

The Lake County Jail has 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 health care. The DOJ outlined 99 deficiencies in that settlement with which the jail needs to comply.

Buncich said the jail is about 60 percent to 65 percent in compliance and no longer is in the red on any of the 99 deficiencies.

In the email, Ray warned the staffing recalculations used to determine the number of correctional officers needed was based on inmate numbers in the 700s.

Negotiations between the DOJ, Ray and the sheriff’s department reduced the figure originally called for in December from 35 correctional officers to 24 correctional officers and three mental health workers.

“The jail population is creeping back up from the 700s to over 800 again. ... Although I think there is a possibility we could prevail against a requirement to hire 35 (versus) 24, if the population continue to climb the 24 becomes moot because the analysis was based on the previous lower numbers,” Ray wrote.

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 DOJ mandate.

Buncich said construction on the psychiatric wing is on target to be complete by the DOJ’s May 27 inspection.

With salary and benefits, each new correctional officer costs about $70,000. Twenty-four new officers would cost about $1.7 million, an expense not currently in the sheriff’s budget. Council members had planned on addressing the hires during the 2015 budget planning this summer. No funding source for the hires has been identified yet, according to officials.

Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, said he is prepared to ask for approval of the three mental health professionals at a salary of $49,920 each.

Officials, however, still need to talk with their financial adviser regarding the hiring of the 24 correctional officers.

“I’m not sure where we’re going to get the money from,” he said.



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