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Editorial: Jail the worst first

Sunday, July 15, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

A handful of Chicago neighborhoods have turned into deadly shooting galleries this summer, leading the police to make ever more arrests of some truly dangerous people.

But Cook County Jail, where those arrested are held while awaiting trial, already is packed from top to bottom, housing an astounding 9,400 defendants, a good many of them nonviolent mopes picked up for relatively minor offenses, such as drugs.

It only makes sense, then, to strongly support a new plan announced Thursday to release on bond or electronic home monitoring about 900 of these lowest-level offenders, which was the intent of the judges who set their bonds in the first place. These are defendants stuck behind bars because they canít scrounge up even $200 to make bail on a bond of $2,000. Or they are homeless, so they cannot be put on electronic monitoring as the judge ordered.

Under the new plan, the sheriff and public defenderís offices will identify cases in which an inmate remains in custody longer than his low bond would seem to justify, and then ask a judge to review the case with an eye to setting an even lower bond. The plan also allows for homeless defendants to be released to a shelter on electronic monitoring.

Perhaps of greater significance, the new plan, presented by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, should improve the quality and quantity of information about defendants provided to the judges who set their bonds. This might not only reduce jail overcrowding ó judges who feel well-informed about a defendant are more likely to feel comfortable setting a low bond ó but also brings more fairness to the entire process.

As the system works now, overburdened public defenders working with paper documents often can provide a judge with only the sketchiest information about a defendant, such as whether he is married and where he lives. Replacing paper with computers, with all the data sources such a switch makes available, should make it possible to give a judge a more detailed picture of a defendant before he sets bond.

All this saves money for cash-strapped Cook County, and it frees up jail space for those who most belong there.

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