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County sends inmates packing to cut costs

Monday, August 24, 2009
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Pat Milhizer

As September begins, Scott Kurtovich will have to figure out how to ease the crowded conditions at a Cook County Jail that's nearly full.

"Come Labor Day, we're going to be at that 98, 99 percent capacity," said Kurtovich, the first assistant executive director in the sheriff's department.

At least he has options with two downstate jails that welcome Cook County inmates.

Under a program that's in its second year, the sheriff's department sends some inmates to jails in Kankakee and Jefferson counties.

One day last week, 39 inmates were in Jefferson County in southern Illinois and another five were in Kankakee County. Compared to the roughly 9,700 inmates that were in the Cook County Jail last week, that may not seem like a lot of inmates.

But the maneuver helps the sheriff's department avoid having to deal with physical and legal fights.

Physical, because when inmates have to sleep on floors, fights can break out if one inmate steps on another. And legal because, when an inmate doesn't have a bed, the sheriff's department technically is violating a federal consent decree.

"Prior to having Kankakee and Jefferson as options, we violated that quite frequently," Kurtovich said.

In addition to promoting a safer jail, sending inmates downstate presents cheaper lock-up costs than what the department spends at the facility on California Avenue.

The county spends an average of about $125 per day to house an inmate in its facility, compared to the $50 charged by Jefferson County and the $60 paid to Kankakee County.

And there are more savings, though they can't actually be measured, in the reduced liability from having a less crowded jail, Kurtovich said.

Since every inmate represents a potential liability for hurting someone else or getting injured himself, a more crowded jail can present the possibility of having more personal-injury lawsuits filed by inmates. And if a correctional officer gets hurt trying to break up a brawl, then there's another workers' compensation claim for the county to address.

To prepare for the Labor Day weekend, Kurtovich will send inmates downstate who represent a medium-security risk and who don't have a court date for at least 30 days, he said. Inmates who represent a high risk for behavioral problems — gang members and anyone else who may be too aggressive with others — also could be sent to the rural counties.

But low-risk inmates never experience this program. Cook County Jail supervisors prefer keeping them around to handle tasks such as serving meals, cutting grass, mopping floors and shoveling snow.

In the past, the debate over how to address crowded jail conditions reached circuit court.

A year ago at this time, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart accused bond court judges of "either intentionally or unintentionally" undermining his efforts to reduce crowding by issuing only one recognizance bond to the roughly 1,500 defendants they saw in a week.

This came at a time when Dart was at odds with Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans over who was responsible for placing defendants on house arrest through electronic monitoring. Dart said judges were in the best position to make the call, and Evans maintained that a federal consent decree leaves that decision to the sheriff.

A compromise was reached last winter when Evans established a pretrial services department in Central Bond Court that makes recommendations to judges on electronic monitoring candidates who are awaiting trial.

Last week, the county had 256 defendants on electronic monitoring.

Kurtovich, who has been with the sheriff's department for 24 years, remembers when that figure was closer to 1,600 defendants. If that many inmates were subjected to house arrest today, Kurtovich said, he wouldn't have to send inmates to other counties.

At a cost of about $50 per inmate each day, electronic monitoring costs roughly the same as sending inmates downstate. And it's less expensive than housing inmates in Cook County Jail.

That's a strong argument to consider expanding the use of house arrest, said county Commissioner Earlean Collins, who chairs the County Board's Criminal Justice Committee.

"I'm constantly pushing it and pushing it because we are under a federal court decree," Collins said.

"It makes a lot more sense because it's the jail population that we have to adhere to, and you can also almost automatically expect an increase in arrests in the summertime because you have all these teenagers and college students out on the street," Collins said. "And compounding the situation is the job market. There aren't as many jobs anymore. So you're going to have more incidents, and they still have to go to jail."

And when they get there, the inmates will find out whether they're one of those headed to a rural county.

"What we're doing is actually saving the taxpayers' money because we're running a safer and securer jail," Kurtovich said about the department's use of the downstate program. "But if we were at 80 percent [jail] capacity, we would not need this."

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