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County Jail searches for way to reduce overcrowding

Thursday, August 26, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County will examine its criminal justice system to see how to reduce administrative delays that could contribute to jail crowding, officials said Wednesday.

Chief Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel made the recommendation at a federal court hearing Wednesday in an ongoing civil case dealing with county jail issues.

Biebel recommended that consultants with American University in Washington update a 1989 study that looks at why inmates are in the prison system for so long before they get to trial.

Recent reports by the John Howard Association have raised issues with a prisoner's right to a speedy trial and staffing shortages at the county jail.

"There's a right to a speedy trial, but it's not happening in many, many cases," said Charles A. Fasano, director of the Prisons and Jails program for the John Howard Association.

Some wait years

Fasano said an inmate waits an average of 180 days and some even wait years before they're found guilty or innocent of their charges. The study will look at a number of aspects of the system, including whether more inmates should be released on electronic monitoring, sent to drug, alcohol or other support programs.

Even though suspects can only spend a maximum sentence of one year in county jail, there's no limit to how long they can wait before their trial, Fasano said.

Bill Quinlan, chairman of the Judiciary Advisory Council, said the county favors the study, which will likely cost about $40,000 in federal and county money.

"That proposal was made before the committee, and the committee is comfortable with it," Quinlan said.

Both Quinlan and Fasano said they've seen improvements with jail crowding over the last year. The Cook County Jail's daily population still runs 500 to 1,000 over its 10,000 capacity, jail officials said.

Staffing request was denied

Sheriff's spokesman Bill Cunningham said staffing is still a chief concern, and the sheriff plans to ask for 200 additional correctional officers this year.

Last year, a request for 100 additional officers was denied for funding reasons, he said.

"Its been the sheriff's contention for a number of years that the jail has been understaffed; we've been unable to get the county to get more staffing," Cunningham said.

Fasano, too, said staffing shortages need to be addressed.

Quinlan said staffing will be examined, but not as part of the study.

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