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Q&A: Peoria County Sheriff Watkins discusses no-cash bail’s impact, needed facility upgrades

Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins participates in an interview in the WCBU studio.
Joe Deacon
Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins participates in an interview in the WCBU studio.

Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins is about to begin his 18th month on the job, taking over after Brian Asbell resigned last July.

In that time, Watkins has worked to address staffing shortages and a jail facility in need of improvements.

He's also seen the creation of a regional task force targeting auto crimes and the implementation of the state's cash-free Pretrial Fairness Act.

In a wide-ranging interview with WCBU, Watkins discusses how the no-cash bail system has impacted the jail population since it took effect two months ago.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

We’re a couple months into the cashless pretrial detention system in Illinois now. How has the Sheriff’s Office adapted to the new procedure, and how has this impacted the population at the jail?

Sheriff Chris Watkins: It was around 350 when no-cash bail came out in September, when it was enacted. From there, it's come down to – actually last night I checked, I think we're at 275, which is lowest we've been in a long time. But having said that, it's still very soon. Last year at this time, it was around 290. So we see that spike in summer months, and then it kind of starts falling through, down, towards the end of the year. So it's just too soon to see what the impact of our population is. Talking to other sheriffs, they've lost around that percentage, too, so there definitely is starting to become an impact. So we are seeing the impact in our population on that.

What about the procedure itself? Is everything running fairly smoothly?

Watkins: Yeah, there's so many different stakeholders in the procedure. You have pretrial (services), you have the courts, you have the State's Attorney's Office. Ours is more of just them letting us know when they (detainees) go to court, those type of things on the jail side. Then on the street, there was a couple changes where we can't take somebody into custody unless we can articulate a few things. That hasn't affected us a ton.

There were some last minute changes (to the law) that really helped us get through those criminal trespasses that – you’ve heard those stories where you had to keep reissuing a court date. Now we can, if we see that that's going to be an issue, after we issue one more court date we can bring them to jail. So yeah, we're not seeing a ton of that on the street.

The problem I'm starting to see – I just started collecting data last week, and we are seeing a few issues with individuals that would’ve probably had $1,000 or $2,000 to get out on a cash bond that (now) are getting released the next day on pretrial. These are individuals that were armed; I even released an example last week, on my Sheriff’s Facebook page, of an incident where an individual was armed with a stolen firearm on school property and was released the next day on pretrial release, which prior this probably would have gotten a $10,000 or $20,000 bond and needed 10% to get out. So you're starting to see some of those issues throughout the state.

A few months ago, a jail detainee serving on a work crew escaped and was loose for a few hours. In the wake of that incident, have you implemented any changes in procedure to prevent this from occurring again in the future?

Watkins: Yeah, there was a couple of issues with that. I mean, we've had – we call them trustees; these are individuals with non-violent offenses (and) it saves taxpayer money when they can do work around (the jail): in the kitchen, (cleaning) floors, we even have them go out in the community to pick up trash sometimes, those types of things. But we're just starting to see a different clientele in our jail, and we're having those individuals that were sentenced to nine months on a DUI, we could use those individuals on our work crew. We're just seeing fewer of those; more violent people are in jail (and) we can't use those people as trustees.

In this incident, we had numerous factors. We had a gate that's been broken for numerous years, that I'm in the middle of fixing. So that was one of the reasons that (gate) was open at the time. And we're not allowing most of our trustees outside to the exterior of the building now. So unfortunately there's a cost to that; now we have to hire somebody to shovel the sidewalks. They used to do those type of things.

So there's a cost to it, but also there's a safety aspect of it. We can't let individuals who are riskier than others run away from us. So yeah, it's been addressed; we've definitely changed a few things up. But that's just, part of the time it’s just pivoting, making adjustments. Just because it worked 15 years ago, doesn't mean it works today.

You mentioned the broken gate, and I believe you've mentioned in the past a need to upgrade or renovate a lot of the sheriff's office facilities and the jail. What improvements are needed, and what is the outlook for getting them done?

Watkins: So there's a lot of improvements, we are making some headway. We're right now in the middle of replacing a roof (and) some tuckpointing, some infrastructure things to the jail because it's getting old; it's used and abused. But we also now have hired a consultant to come in and give us options – it's called the jail master plan. So we want to see every option available moving forward, long-term and short-term, on what to do with the jail.

Over half of my population right now has mental health issues, and I just don't have the facility to handle that right now. We're getting staff hurt, we're getting our medical staff hurt. We need to change with the times to have some type of mental health unit at the jail because, unfortunately – we have a lot of good programs out there, but we're always the last resort and unfortunately some of those (people) end up in jail, right? So we want to treat them – behaviorial health, drug addiction, mental health, a lot of these people are in our jail and I don't think that's going to stop. It's probably going to increase before it decreases, honestly. So I want to be prepared for that.

We'll be curious to see what the consultants come up with. A couple of options: obviously a new jail (or) an addition to our jail. Construction costs are very high right now, so a new jail is astronomical. So we're just trying to think outside the box, what we can do with what we have – if that's an addition or just repair what we have. Also even looking farther outside the box: A regional jail that has multiple counties. Anything we can think of that maybe another place in the United States is doing that's working. So these consultants are going to help us out with that, with the cost, too.

Have you been able to make any progress in addressing staffing shortages, and what recruitment efforts are being pursued?

Watkins: Yeah, I've been sheriff for a little over a year now and we've made some really good headway. I would actually be fully staffed on the deputies – I was 10 down when I took over, but we added four new deputy spots: two with the stolen car task force GPAC (Greater Peoria Auto Crimes Task Force), one is attached with DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services), and one new SRO (school resource officer) at Illini Bluffs (in Glasford). Those are all fully funded by those entities that wanted those. So I'm down a couple of deputies, but very manageable right now.

Correction officers, I was down 20 and we're still down – when I took over I we were down 20 and now we're, I think, around 12 or 13. So we're still hurting, like a lot of sheriff's offices in the state. Part of that is that whole law enforcement shortage; they can kind of skip the step of being a correctional officer and go right into being a police officer right now, which is kind of hurting the jail staff right now.

So we're slowly chipping away. We've hired an outside recruiting company (and) we're trying to think outside the box in offering bonuses. We're seeing an increase in applicants, but we're still – we want to find the right people, too.

You just mentioned the auto crimes task force. How much progress has the sheriff's office been able to make in conjunction with the task force in being able to cut down on vehicle thefts and carjacking?

Watkins: So right now, they're still building that up; I do have two detectives assigned. They're making a – I think it was just talked about statewide that this task force is already making a bigger impact than some of the northern task forces in the state. I think this month alone – and the month’s not even up – they recovered 15 cars and made five arrests, and that's only with three detectives right now, four detectives. So that's going to almost double as time goes. Peoria PD has somebody in there; they're working on their staffing levels, too. So it's still being built; building a new task force takes a couple of years.

But that was very important for me to get two investigators, because I was doing well staffing-wise to get those in right off the bat – because we're still seeing 50 cars stolen a month. I mean, it's still a big issue in Peoria and they're all running from the police. Every time we try to stop one (thief), they take off – which then puts the public at risk. So having these investigators do those follow-ups: find the car and do those investigations, maybe get the arrest later on or shortly after, we're starting to see some success with that.

Are you seeing the same group of offenders doing this? I know we've heard that there's been clicks or so that have done a lot of the vehicle crimes.

Watkins: There's definitely some main (groups), and a lot of them are juveniles, too, right? That's the problem we've talked about: we’ll arrest them and they'll be out a few days later, because of the juvenile system, how it's built. These kids know that there's no repercussions for them, which is very frustrating for us because they just have no regard for human life. They're out there running 100 miles an hour, these 15 year olds in these cars, and something bad is going to happen. Unfortunately, they just know there's not many repercussions for them, so they're going to keep on doing it.

Now with the no-cash bail, these adults, we're starting to see the same thing with them. They know they're not going to be held; they're going to be released the next day or two after we arrest them. So property crime is a big deal, especially in Peoria. I mean, we have the violent crime, but property crime – especially out in the county – that's a big deal, and we want to keep addressing it. We're going to keep arresting individuals; we're not going to stop because of how the court system and the justice system is built. We are still going to arrest them – even if we have to arrest of them twice in a week, we're going to arrest them.

What can property owners or vehicle owners do to kind of protect themselves from these types of crimes?

Watkins: A year ago, I would say just keep your doors locked (and) don't keep your key fobs in the car. But now they're smashing windows, and – you've seen the “Kia boys;” we've been talking about that for almost a year now, where they're still doing it: They're still putting the USB cords in the vehicle and starting them and taking off, even if you don't have the key fob in there. So that's – it's tough.

We’ve talked about The Club (steering wheel lock), but now they found a way to break the steering wheel to take The Club off. And putting The Club on a car is inconvenient for the – we're always in a rush. We're stopping three or four times at different places, so putting The Club on is an inconvenience and we're not seeing people really use it. But it is a tool.

Obviously, if you have a garage, keep your car in your garage. But not everybody has a garage, and some of these (thefts) are happening in parking lots, workplaces. So you're starting to see legislators getting frustrated with some of these auto makers, and they're trying to pressure him to get these updates so that it's not so easy for them to (steal). But yeah, there's only certain so much you can do, honestly, to keep these from happening.

Next Tuesday night you will be instructing a free course on situational awareness at Illinois Central College's Peoria Campus. What is meant by “situational awareness” and what will attendees learn in this presentation?

Watkins: Yeah, we've been doing this (and) we've been getting great responses, that's why we keep doing it. We're doing it for private companies throughout Peoria. The more people we can talk to about it – it's about an hour and a half class, me my chief deputy do it. We've been doing it for several years now, and we change it; we evolve with the times, too.

We usually give some stats on what's actually going on in Peoria, because a lot of people don't know actually what's going on in Peoria; not everything makes the news. So we kind of update them in the class, and then we give them tips on how not to be a soft target, even if it's at the workplace. You know, we see active shooters almost daily in the United States. So it’s just running your mind through: If you're in your office and you hear gunshots, what are you going to do? Are you going to break a window? Can you jump out that window? How many floors up are you?

We want to run people through these mental mindsets so that hopefully it saves their life one day. Hopefully they never had an encounter that. We're starting to see more robberies (and) carjackings, so we run them through scenarios on what they can do. Be a good victim. Some things are just unavoidable, so what do you do after that happens?

As we head into December and looking forward into 2024, what initiatives, programs or goals are you planning to pursue?

Watkins: We started the (Elite Outreach) re-entry program in our jail last year (and) we're making good progress with that. We're actually seeing, I think only one or two graduates of that have actually re-offended. So now we're really focused on the drug treatment.

Something that a lot of people aren't talking about is we have a major fentanyl crisis. Even in Peoria, we’re seeing a large amount of overdoses. A lot of these individuals are ending up in jail, and unfortunately when you're taking meth or fentanyl, it takes months for you to get off that and actually get a good mindset to keep off those drugs.

So, if they end up in our jail, we want to make sure we have programs to help them because that reduces crime, too; they're not out committing crimes to end up in jail when it's really – it's habit driven, it's behavior health. So I really want to focus on that. We don't really have a whole lot going on in the jail since COVID hit, so I'm looking at a couple different programs for that.

And then just still getting out there in the public, being seen and just helping out in any way we can.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.