It is time for an honest conversation about crime in Rockford, a conversation that focuses on solutions rather than excuses. For far too long, politicians and public officials have gotten away with blaming everything under the sun but themselves for their impotence in the face of the city’s problems. For years they have offered the same solution: raise taxes and pour money into public schools and development projects, with little effect. We need leadership with the courage to change the conversation and get results.
Unfortunately, dissemblance has become a way of life for our public officials. In an interview last week, for example, Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson masterfully side-stepped criticism over Rockford’s embarrassing crime rate. “There is too much crime,” he said. “When we look at crime reduction, crime is the end result. We have to look at poverty, the economy and education. Those are the core components. If we have a crime problem, that is the end. What has happened before that? We are making progress, but there is just too much crime.”
By Michael Kleen
Back in July 2003, Winnebago County levied a 1 percent sales tax to pay for a brand-new, $142 million jail, which opened in 2007. Today, that jail is overflowing with prisoners, and local politicians are looking to spend an unexpected increase in tax revenue on hiring more guards. I believe that levying a county sales tax to pay for a new jail was a mistake from the onset, and that we need to find an alternative means of funding the jail while reducing its overall cost.
Winnebago County remains one of the worst counties in the state in terms of crime rate, and the county’s solution to this problem has been to simply lock criminals up and throw away the key. In this endeavor, our new jail has been a success. Crime in Winnebago County dropped 15 percent from 2008 to 2009, and according to Sheriff Dick Meyers, unincorporated Winnebago County saw a 20.9 percent reduction in crime over the past several years. At the same time, the average daily population in the jail has climbed more than 27.8 percent.
This is a very expensive way of reducing crime, one that will cost the county millions of dollars to sustain over the long term. Furthermore, a larger jail filled with more prisoners fails to address the root causes of crime, which means we will need to continue to fill the jail to keep crime rates down.