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Sheriff, judge joust over jail inmates

Thursday, November 08, 2007
Daily Law Bulletin
by Stephanie Potter

At a contentious hearing Thursday, Chief Cook County Judge Timothy C. Evans and Sheriff Thomas J. Dart debated whose office should be responsible for deciding which jail inmates to release and put on electronic monitoring.
Evans and Dart appeared before the Cook County Board's Finance Committee, which is conducting hearings on the 2008 budget. Commissioners wanted to hear from Dart, Evans and State's Attorney Richard A. Devine about jail overcrowding and criminal cases that some contend are not moving through the court system fast enough.
Dart said electronic monitoring could be a valuable ''relief valve'' to reduce overcrowding in the County Jail. However, Dart wants judges, rather than his office, to determine which inmates should be placed on electronic monitoring.
The county is operating under a federal consent decree meant to reduce overcrowding, but Dart and Evans vigorously disagree over whether the decree mandates that only the sheriff is responsible for deciding who should be released, or whether the court system should have a role. Duran v. Elrod, 713 F.2d 292 (7th Cir. 1984).
The debate first arose in February, when Dart backed state legislation that would make Cook County judges responsible for deciding which inmates should be transferred from the jail to electronic monitoring. The measure, House Bill 2749, is now in the Senate Rules Committee.
Dart told the commissioners that the electronic-monitoring system as it is currently run is reckless.
He said judges, because of their training and experience, are much better suited to decide who should be released on electronic monitoring. He also pointed out that judges have immunity for those types of decisions, while sheriff's officials could be sued if a detainee on electronic monitoring commits another crime.
Evans, however, countered that judges' decisions on bond are, by law, meant only to protect the public and ensure the defendant's presence at future court hearings.
''There's nothing in the statute that permits the judge to even consider anything that is going on in the jail at this particular point,'' Evans said.
However, there appeared to be a possibility for compromise when it comes to defendants' initial bond hearings.
Evans said that if judges are to be involved in determining which detainees are eligible for electronic monitoring, he wants the County Board to fund a pretrial investigation agency to screen defendants. Such an agency would cost about $1 million to establish, Evans said.
That agency would recommend to the court whether a detainee should be eligible for electronic monitoring. If the judge deemed the inmate eligible at the initial bond hearing, the inmate would be sent directly to the sheriff to be enlisted in the program, Evans said.
The pretrial agency also could work with the sheriff's office on which members of the current jail population could be deemed eligible for electronic monitoring, Evans said.
''The judges will make that decision initially,'' Evans. ''But when there's an issue of overcrowding, not bail, then that's when the federal court [consent decree] says that decision should be made by the sheriff.''
Evans also said he would institute a sliding-scale fee schedule for inmates to be put on electronic monitoring, although he and Dart disagreed as to whether that could be profitable for the county.
Evans said, ''I want to remind you, they're in jail because they have no money [for bail].''
But Dart said many inmates have large commissary accounts for junk food, so they likely could afford to pay some fee for electronic monitoring.
Commissioner Timothy O. Schneider, concerned about litigation expenses, asked Evans why judges can't determine who should be released from jail and put on electronic monitoring. Evans said the answer isn't simply immunity, but making sure that judges and the sheriff's office have the needed information about whether a detainee should be released on electronic monitoring.
''The judge doesn't have any clairvoyance about whether that person is going to commit an offense while out on bail,'' Evans said.



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