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Judge scolds county on jail
Lack of progress in hiring guards prompts hearing

Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

In a closed-door meeting, a federal judge Tuesday vented his frustration with six Cook County commissioners and Sheriff Michael Sheahan over the lack of progress in negotiations to hire additional guards at the County Jail.

U.S. District Judge George Marovich, who oversees a consent decree governing inmate population and staffing, stressed to commissioners that he expects movement on the issue soon.

It was the same message the judge stressed in open court in October, but this time with more emphasis and made directly to county commissioners, according to several who attended.

Marovich called the private meeting Tuesday in advance of a public court hearing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

County Board President John Stroger did not attend because he had left town for the Thanksgiving holiday.

"This was a very sobering hearing," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston). "I think we go back to the other 11 board members who were not present with a sense of immediacy that did not exist prior to going to this conference."

Suffredin said Marovich "re-emphasized with greater urgency" the points the judge made last month about the need to hire more jail guards.

Several who attended the meeting said the judge is unlikely to order the hiring of more guards Wednesday. However, he could issue such an order in the coming weeks if an agreement is not reached.

The suit, first filed in 1974, is a class action in which all pretrial detainees at the jail are listed as plaintiffs. The lawyers for the plaintiffs in the consent decree filed a motion last week that seeks the hiring of 750 jail guards over the next three years, including 375 in 2005.

Stroger has yet to release a proposed budget for 2005, but he has rejected Sheahan's request for 200 more guards.

Instead, Stroger offered 50 guards and another 33 new staffers for a prerelease center.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs say Stroger's offer is not nearly enough. They seek to hold the County Board in civil contempt--in essence to fine them--if the county fails to comply with the consent decree.

Details of whether more guards are hired all at once or in phases over a few years would need to be worked out between the parties in the case and the staffs of Stroger and Sheahan, said Commissioner Carl Hansen (R-Mt. Prospect), who attended the meeting.

"My guess is today was the first step in that direction," Hansen said. "The judge made it very clear he wants this thing resolved. He was not ambiguous about it."

Last month, Marovich told the lawyers that he expected them to be close to an agreement by Wednesday's hearing.

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