URBANA — Citing a “chronic and persistent staffing shortage,” the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center in Urbana started sending its inmates to three other counties this week, but only temporarily.
Court Services Director Mike Williams said he and others in the judicial system have been working for months to rectify the staffing deficiency that has plagued the east Urbana jail for minors ages 13 to 17 for the past 18 months.
For the next 90 days, those detainees instead will be held at juvenile detention centers in Vernon Hills in Lake County, about 170 miles north of Urbana; Joliet in Will County, about 114 miles north of Urbana; and in Normal in McLean County, about 60 miles to the west.
There are 16 juvenile detention centers in Illinois.
“It’s a very temporary measure. During that time we hope to be able to recruit, hire and train new staff and we hope to retain the staff we have now,” said Williams, director of court services for the last four years and a 20-plus-year veteran of the judicial system.
Williams said he’s never seen staffing deficiencies this severe in his career. Fully staffed, the 24-hour detention center requires 24 line officers, not including supervisors, to take care of up to 25 minors.
“For most of 2022, we have operated with less than 50 percent staffing,” he said. “Since Dec. 1, we have not given people time off except for illnesses and emergencies.”
Presiding Judge Randy Rosenbaum, who endorsed the transfer plan, said the decision was not made lightly.
“Mike brought it to my attention late last year. We have had a series of meetings with the county board, public defender, state’s attorney, judges. We’ve looked at a lot of different options,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s really the only possible option now but it’s a temporary one.”
To be clear, the center will remain open and staff will be there to assess juveniles brought in by police.
“If screened into detention, we will hold them until a detention hearing. If the court orders them further detained, we will work with the other centers,” Williams said, noting that feuding minors will be kept apart when they are transferred.
Juvenile cases typically move through the judicial system in a matter of weeks as opposed to months or sometimes years in adult criminal cases.
Williams said that around Memorial Day, the center was at capacity. The juveniles there are charged with serious crimes, including four charged as adults with murder and others for residential burglary, aggravated criminal sexual abuse and weapons offenses, for example.
Long gone are the days when a chronically truant student or an alleged shoplifter might be placed in detention to get his or her attention.
“We have whittled it down and are under 15 right now,” Williams said Thursday.
On Monday, a few details went to McLean County. On Thursday, another four went to Lake County, and three or four more were to be moved today to Will County. The remaining detainees are expected to be transferred after court hearings next week.
Williams said he and facility superintendent Keith Willis made the decision to transfer the juveniles last Thursday and informed the staff Friday. Willis also called each of the parents or guardians of the detainees to alert them.
“I can say it was welcomed by the staff,” said Williams, who also had to press adult and juvenile probation officers into service at the detention center. Williams and Willis have also transported youths to the courthouse for hearings. Any movement of a minor outside the center requires two adults, whether it’s for a court hearing or a doctor’s appointment.
Willis reported that most of the parents or guardians were supportive of the out-of-county transfers once informed that it was for the safety of their children and the staff.
“One or two indicated they might not be able to make the trip to visit their child,” said Williams, adding he does not want to minimize the inconvenience to families having their loved ones housed far away.
Many have been visiting remotely via Zoom since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, he said, and that option remains in place.
Williams said he’s also mindful of the inconvenience to defense attorneys, many of whom are already having to travel more than an hour one way to Decatur or Kankakee to see their adult clients who are being held in those counties due to crowding at the satellite jail in Urbana.
Williams said the situation is improving incrementally.
On Thursday, he had 16 line staff employed but two of them were pending resignation.
“We have started three new staff in the last two weeks and one more will start at the end of July. We have made offers to two more,” said Williams, cautiously optimistic that 90 days should help get the center back to an appropriate staffing level.
A July 9 job fair at Parkland College for first responders had a “disappointing” result for the detention center, Williams said, speculating it was a timing issue being in the middle of the summer on a Saturday.
Williams estimates the cost of housing the youths in the other detention centers at $190,000 for the three months. That’s based on an average bed rate of around $138 per day and an average of 15 inmates from Champaign County per day.
The good news, if there is any, is that the money is available to cover those costs because of the salary and benefits he has not had to pay out.