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Judge censures Stroger over lack of jail guards
Board chief may be held in contempt of court for not hiring more watchmen

Friday, December 24, 2004
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

A federal judge Thursday scolded Cook County Board President John Stroger for apparently breaking promises about hiring more jail guards.

U.S. District Judge George Marovich indicated he might find Stroger and the county in contempt of court at a hearing set for February. That could result in heavy fines against the county or even jail time for officials, though attorneys in the case say that is unlikely.

"I am not a negotiator, I am an adjudicator," Marovich said as part of a 20-minute lecture to county attorneys and officials. "I have given the parties ample opportunities to — as my sixth-grade teacher used to say as she rapped me across the knuckles — wake up and see the Christmas tree. That has not happened."

Marovich said he is now less concerned with how many jail guards are needed to make "a good start" on solving the problem of understaffing. Instead, Marovich may put the county on the hook for hiring all the needed guards at once.

So instead of hiring between 200 and 375 guards, the financially strapped county — still facing a $70 million budget gap — may be forced to hire up to 1,100 guards at a cost of nearly $40 million.

Marovich oversees a consent decree stemming from a 1974 civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of Cook County Jail inmates. Under the terms of the court order, Marovich monitors conditions at the sprawling jail complex at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago.

Marovich has been pressing the county to hire more guards. The John Howard Association, a court-appointed watchdog group, says the jail needs 750 more guards.

Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who manages the jail, said the number may be closer to 1,100. That could cost $39.6 million, based on earlier county estimates.

Attorneys representing the inmates have said in the past they want at least 375 guards hired immediately. Stroger's office, which has for years rejected Sheahan's requests for more guards, said there was only money for between 50 and 80 more guards.

Both sides had agreed on a budget that would hire 283 new guards in 2005. Inmates' attorneys had agreed to delay their request for a contempt finding.

But Tuesday morning, inmates' learned the county was backing out.

According to a memo from inmates' attorney Robert Lehrer, county lawyer Patrick Driscoll told him the "retreat" was due to "budgetary considerations." Lehrer renewed his request to have the county held in contempt of court.

Stroger spokeswoman Caryn Stancik declined to explain the last-minute change, other than to say it was a "misunderstanding" and the budget as drafted now will include 200 new guards.

The judge was skeptical.

"Whether (Stroger) made such a commitment (for 283 guards) is something President Stroger knows better than I. One thing is clear: The parties thought he had," Marovich said. "President Stroger says he was misunderstood, I guess by his own staff, his own chief of staff and his own budget people."

Marovich brushed aside accusations by Driscoll that problems at the jail were due to mismanagement by Sheahan, who has been feuding with Stroger over budget issues for more than a year.

Driscoll said there was an average of 46 jail guards every day who were being paid but were not at work and not on leave for any legitimate reason.

Sheahan spokesman Bill Cunningham called the accusation "a smoke screen to divert attention from what's been going on in court."

He said most guards absent from work are on disability or emergency family leave.

Marovich said he's been trying to avoid a hearing on contempt of court "as I might avoid the bubonic plague" because it will be expensive for county taxpayers, who are paying for both sides of the legal debate.

If Marovich presses the county to hire all the guards needed, 750 or more, Stroger's resistance to a negotiated solution could be a serious mistake, said inmates' attorney Diane Redleaf.

"What we've been working on so far is what is an acceptable number (of new guards) for a good start," Marovich said. "I'm not interested in a good start, I'm concerned about what is an adequate number to staff the jail. ... I'm not going to get on this merry-go-round every year."

How many guards are needed is contested.

Charles Fasano, an investigator for the John Howard Association, said 5.1 officers are needed for every 24-hour post. Marovich said he's interested in enforcing the consent decree's requirement that their be one guard per tier at all times. The jail hasn't had that many guards on its tiers for a decade.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), a Stroger opponent, attended the hearing Thursday and said commissioners need to push Stroger to release his proposed budget, which is under wraps two weeks into the county's new fiscal year.

"This is just poor planning," Suffredin said. "The president views if Mike Sheahan gets an extra job, then the president should get an extra job. It is a 1940s approach to democratic politics which has totally outlived its usefulness."

 


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