Watson calls for jail expansion, says inmates are being released due to overcrowding

News-DemocratFebruary 9, 2014 

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson wants police chiefs and mayors across the county to let their residents know what's at stake with an upcoming sales tax referendum.

The St. Clair County Board has decided to ask voters in the March 18 primary to approve a quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax. Money raised from the tax would be used for the proposed $37 million expansion and renovation of the county jail.

Watson told police chiefs and mayors last week that "all of the municipalities within the county have a vested interest in making sure the public understands how and why the jail expansion is necessary."

He said 15 to 25 inmates are released weekly from the county jail because of overcrowding.

"These offenders return to those local communities where they live and committed the criminal offenses. Citizens, in considering this small, one quarter percent sales tax should ask themselves, 'Do you want them in your house or do you want them in our house?'" Watson asked.

Watson said his question was not meant as cynicism. He said it is a stark reality as crime patterns trend upward and housing criminals is a commodity.

Watson asked all of the chiefs and mayors to make sure their residents know the new tax was being proposed as a sales tax and not as a property tax.

Watson said when the St. Clair County Jail was built in 1976, it was originally designed to house 240 inmates. He noted that previous expansions of the jail allowed it to be able to house 418 inmates were federally funded.

"The county has never received funding or a tax increase from the citizens related to jail renovations," Watson said.

Watson said "the jail currently runs 135 inmates over its capacity and this has had a systemic effect relative to inmate on inmate violence and frivolous lawsuits."

Watson also talked to the chiefs and mayors about the Sheriff Department's specialty units -- the Drug Tactical Unit, Street Crimes Unit and Rehabilitation Program and ways in which they can assist their agencies.

He asked them to consider assigning police officers from their departments to the Drug Tactical Unit.

"By working in a collaborative manner, this increases real time information sharing between agencies. This creates better congruency among agencies, quicker apprehension of dangerous felons in the county and helps to reduce response times to the public's complaints," he said.

The Sheriff Department's Rehabilitation Program, which is an inmate work release program, is operated throughout the county. The inmates clean up roadways, lots and parks that have become debilitated.

"If this unit can be of service to your respective areas, don't hesitate to let us know," Watson said.

After the meeting, Watson said he hopes that the meeting helped engender an ethos between agencies that encourages information and resource sharing.

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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