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Cook County Jail is Cook County's problem

Monday, January 09, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Malcolm C. Young
Letter to the Editor

In its Jan.3 editorial ("Who's being held in contempt?") the Chicago Tribune criticized U.S. District Judge George Marovich for his statement about the number of guard positions now being budgeted for the Cook County Jail. A judge can only rule on what is presented to him or her by the parties in a lawsuit.

Judge Marovich and the parties were advised more than a year ago that the jail was severely understaffed. Just before the court hearing on Dec. 28, the county's own expert confirmed understaffing in detail with solid numbers. No county officer has filed a report or pleading with the court suggesting that these reports are wrong or that the sheriff could use existing staff to correct the shortfall at the jail. If "hundreds of new guard positions" could be created within the sheriff's current budget by outsourcing janitorial services, this case could have been offered by any of the county commissioners, each of whom is a defendant. Had any done so, the judge would have had something to work with.

But none of the defendants made the case in court that was argued in the Tribune's editorial, so the only option open to the judge was to focus the county's attention on the ongoing budget process, where, most obviously, the required new positions must be approved.

The Tribune raised some important additional points. One might reasonably expect that, with the decrease in crime, the jail population would also decrease. But the reality is that what the police, prosecutors and trial courts do as they arrest, prosecute and set bond has a near-controlling impact on the jail population. None of these is a party in the lawsuit, so Judge Marovich has no authority over any of them. But it is they, along with the county and sheriff, not the federal court, who should be called to task for what amounts to a system-wide failure over years to work out solutions to a deadly serious, dangerous situation at the Cook County Jail.

We, too, believe there are several options to the understaffing and overcrowding problems at the jail, and we will raise these alternatives, both old and new, with the appropriate officials. The responsibility to move on them lies with Cook County officials, however, and not the federal court. Until county officials do move, Judge Marovich's frustration is understandable.

Malcolm C. Young, Executive Director, The John Howard Association of Illinois



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