DuPage sheriff sends jail volunteers packing, has new plan to rehabilitate inmates

Volunteers working within the DuPage County jail fear that, for the first time in more than 30 years, inmates who reach out for help during their incarceration will not be met with a guiding hand.

In an Aug. 10 email, Chief Anthony Romanelli, who oversees the jail, said DuPage County Sheriff John Zaruba canceled the nearly 32-year relationship between his office and J.U.S.T. of DuPage, a nonprofit that provides job training, addiction treatment and religious services for inmates. J.U.S.T. stands for Justice Understanding Service Teaching.

"The Sheriff has decided, at his sole discretion, to terminate the current Professional Service Provider Agreement between J.U.S.T. of DuPage and the DuPage County Sheriff as detailed in Section 9 of the Agreement for among other reasons, a material misrepresentation of services provided by J.U.S.T. of DuPage," Romanelli wrote to J.U.S.T. Executive Director Michael Beary. The email listed Sept. 10 as the agency's last day to operate in the jail.

According to J.U.S.T.'s approximately $220,000 budget, the organization annually receives $138,000 from the jail, through the inmates' commissary fund. The rest comes from donations, fundraisers and grants.

Beary, who joined the organization in mid-June, said the email was the first he has heard of any "misrepresentation of services." He said Zaruba has ignored his request for a meeting since the email.

Beary said he and his 120-member volunteer base were "shocked and devastated."

"If an inmate decides to seriously reach their hand out for some help, we're approachable and we're there. My concern is who's going to be there if some of these people decide to confront the issues that brought them here and reach out for help and it's not there," he said. "I don't have any information on what their alternative plans are because they've refused to meet with me."

DuPage County Public Defender Jeff York, whose office represents a large number of the jail's approximately 500 inmates, said his office is "deeply concerned about the services at the jail or lack thereof available to our clients at the jail without J.U.S.T."

Wednesday afternoon, 48 hours after the Daily Herald filed a Freedom of Information request for the emails and sought comment from Zaruba, Sgt. Robert Harris replied in an email the decision was made after a DuPage County judge ruled the current substance abuse recovery program, as administered by J.U.S.T., does not meet the Illinois Department of Corrections standards under state statute.

DuPage County Courts Administrator John Lapinski confirmed "the issue arose" at an Aug. 7 hearing before Judge George Bakalis where an inmate sentenced to 18 years for a drug-induced homicide was seeking a reduced sentence based, in part, on J.U.S.T. classes he had participated in. The inmate's motion was denied but Lapinski said he has "not seen a court order or transcript regarding the actual ruling."

"J.U.S.T. has served admirably for many years, helping inmates of the DuPage County Jail with life skills and faith," Harris wrote. "The office plans to continue to partner with the current volunteers who have served the inmates of the jail in an exemplary manner. Little to no interruption to services is anticipated during the transition."

The statement makes no reference to any "material misrepresentations" made by J.U.S.T.

Instead, Harris said the sheriff plans to partner with the DuPage County Health Department on a three-tiered multidenominational approach to address substance abuse and mental health.

It would include: officewide crisis intervention team training and development, and implementation of a post-crisis intervention unit; hiring a mental health re-entry specialist who assists inmates' return to the community; and an initiative to develop a jail diversion program for those with mental health issues, Harris said.

J.U.S.T Board President Joseph Udell called the move "a major blow to both the inmates and volunteers."

"Over the long haul, we have proved our value in the jail. We offer a breadth of programs that offer inmates an opportunity to improve themselves," Udell said. "We've got a broad, holistic approach to working with the inmates and I don't know of anyone else who can match us."

Zaruba is not seeking reelection in November.

At least one of the two candidates vying to replace him says eliminating J.U.S.T. is a mistake.

James Mendrick, a 21-year department veteran and current patrol commander, is the Republican nominee. Mendrick said J.U.S.T. and their volunteers do the lion's share of rehabilitating inmates for life on the outside, and called their services "essential."

If elected, Mendrick says one of his first directives will be to reunite with the agency.

"In fact, I have plans to expand what they do because I'd like to see them add a trade component. As sheriff, it's essential that you look for ways to turn these people from tax burdens to taxpayers," he said. "And J.U.S.T. has helped us do that for three decades."

Democratic challenger Gregory Whalen, a lieutenant with the Glencoe Public Safety Department, said he also would make reinstalling J.U.S.T., or a "similarly enhanced program," a priority.

"The biggest thing is making sure any services we install are up to par with any standards that may be out there. And it needs to be done rather quickly so we can start helping people again," Whalen said Thursday. "We can't just go without these services. That would just cause us problems in the future."

Michael Beary
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