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Court threatens to step in to increase County Jail guards

Thursday, November 25, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

More guards are coming to the Cook County Jail.

The only questions remaining are just how many and what it will cost Cook County taxpayers.

U.S. District Court Judge George Marovich, in a Wednesday hearing to determine whether the county is complying with federally mandated staffing requirements, made clear that political tussles between Sheriff Michael Sheahan and Cook County commissioners need to be set aside, in the name of meeting the requirement.

If they don't, he said, he will.

Sheahan wants taxpayers to pony up $7.2 million so he can add 200 jailers to his 6,479 workers. Commissioners, meanwhile, are willing to give him some new jailers, but want him to shuffle existing positions to meet the need and lessen the burden on taxpayers.

But critics say the jail is desperately overcrowded and understaffed, with some calling for as many as 750 new jailers. Wednesday, attorneys for those who sued the county said 375 new guards is "the minimum acceptable" this year, with more needed next year.

No contempt yet

Marovich made clear he wasn't issuing orders or, as some wanted, holding Sheahan and commissioners in contempt of court -- yet.

But he's calling them back in four weeks to "enlighten me further on the progress you've made" toward finding a compromise.

Those involved, including the jail watchdog group the John Howard Association, met with Marovich Tuesday in private, where he said he believes "commissioners have a better understanding of their obligation."

"Adequate staffing at the Cook County Jail is not a discretionary matter," he said, "but something that is legally mandated."

It's mandated by a 1982 federal consent decree that stemmed from an earlier lawsuit filed by inmates, who are represented by Diane Redleaf and Robert Lehrer.

Hike inevitable

They joined county attorneys in a Wednesday morning meeting, with another set for next week "with bean-counters and number-crunchers," sheriff's attorney Dan Gallagher said.

It's building toward an increase of some kind in the sheriff's 2005 budget, which makes up almost $400 million of Cook County's overall $3 billion-plus budget.

Board President John Stroger, who butted heads with Sheahan about his budget last week, has yet to unveil the total county budget, but it must be passed by Feb. 28.

Marovich said "my optimism has increased in the past 24 hours" on whether the sides can compromise, adding that "given the proper guidance by the court," he expects an agreement to be reached soon.

"If you can't," he warned, "the court will."

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