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Preckwinkle finds 'intersection of poverty and racism' at jail

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

by Pat Milhizer

Talk to a criminal court judge and you may hear why letting arrestees out on reduced bonds or electronic monitoring is easier said than done.

Judges typically don't want the potential guilt or media scrutiny that surfaces when they release an inmate from jail before trial and the defendant commits a violent act.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wants to take that chance with defendants who get arrested for nonviolent crimes. And she's ready to shield the court from any criticism if the unwanted outcome happens.

"In any reasonable enterprise, there will be an occasional glitch," she said. "I'm prepared to take the heat for the occasional glitch because I think this is a much more reasonable practice."

Where passers-by see a jail, Preckwinkle, 65, sees what she calls "the intersection of poverty and racism" that costs about $236 million this year.

Asked why she's so passionate about the jail, Preckwinkle responds with a question to the white reporter.

"There are a lot more people who look like me in the jail than you, right? Almost everybody in the jail is black or brown," she said. "Almost everybody. … The way in which our criminal justice system has operated … across the country has had a disparate and devastating impact on communities of color. So I'm in a position where I can try to do something about that."

Her generally blunt approach can sometimes appear as refreshing or a turn off.

Voters might be surprised to hear a politician readily admit a failure. Without being asked, Preckwinkle said she didn't meet a goal of reducing the jail's population by 1,000 in her first year.

Contrast that honesty with comments in August when she said former President Ronald Reagan deserved "a special place in hell" for the country's illegal drug policy. She later regretted the comment.

"When she disagrees with you, you know it. When she agrees with you, you know it," said Cook County Commissioner Peter N. Silvestri. "Somebody who disagrees with you, and they tell you, is a lot better than they say they agree with you and then disagree with you when the time comes."

More electronic monitoring

As county board president, Preckwinkle sets the budget for the criminal justice system. The chief judge manages the courts and the sheriff operates the jail.

The county spends about $143 a day to house, feed and clothe one inmate. Letting a detainee, who's awaiting trial, leave jail on individual recognizance costs nothing.

If a judge wants to keep a defendant confined to certain areas in the community, electronic monitoring costs an average of $75 a day for each person. The electronic option started debate in 2008 — two years before Preckwinkle won election — when Sheriff Thomas J. Dart and Chief Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans sparred about whose office should place arrestees on electronic monitoring.

During that debate, the use of electronic monitoring plummeted from 3,808 participants in 2008 to 1,974 participants in 2009. In 2010, judges placed 2,490 people on electronic monitoring.

The number jumped to 4,394 last year. This year, the county surpassed that figure in September when 4,714 arrestees used the procedure at some point.

"This is something that's been a priority for her ever since I've been the public defender," said Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham. "We are in total agreement on this. We do need to address the overcrowding issues at the county jail and the people that are costing it.

"And we've talked about the war on drugs. And I'm in agreement that we need to take a new look at that. If you have a person locked up for a nickel bag of marijuana, that's not an effective use of taxpayer money."

Preckwinkle also eyes juvenile reform. She wants to close the county juvenile detention center, which costs about $40 million this year, and open four to six neighborhood facilities to put youths closer to home in small groups.

Working with Evans, Preckwinkle's rival in three aldermanic campaigns from 1983 to 1991, is needed because Evans' office will be responsible for the juvenile detention center when the day comes that a federal judge removes a temporary administrator from the facility.

Today, the county board considered a plan to let Evans and Preckwinkle appoint members to a panel to make policy and operation recommendations about the juvenile detention center.

Evans asked board members to defer the plan until the Annie E. Casey Foundation studies the center at no cost in the next 60 days. The board voted 12-5 against his request and then approved forming the committee in 90 days.

After the vote, Evans answered questions from reporters about his relationship with Preckwinkle.

He said their past political rivalry isn't relevant to current issues.

"I would hope that all of our decisions are based upon what's best for the county, what's best for the court … and not any personal difficulties that we had in the past," Evans said.

Regarding a perceived power struggle with Preckwinkle, Evans talked about the law.

"There are responsibilities for the judiciary. There are responsibilities for the legislative (branch). And there are responsibilities of the executive branch," Evans said. "And one branch is not to invade the priorities of the other branch. And that's the Constitution. … It's not Evans against Preckwinkle or Preckwinkle against Evans."

A politician's reality

So far, Preckwinkle isn't concerned about the civil side of the court system. But she made one change at the Daley Center in June to try to identify who uses the 29th floor law library.

Library visitors now must sign in, indicate their zip code and if they're a lawyer or pro se litigant.

Next, Preckwinkle plans to address the time it takes to reach a result in a criminal case that, depending on the verdict, either sends a defendant home or to a state prison. The sooner a case ends, the sooner the county stops paying for the defendant.

A mother to two adult children and a wife who enjoys science fiction novels, Preckwinkle used to work as a high school history teacher.

Her educator's side shows when she holds news conferences and expects reporters to respond to her with a collective "good morning" or "good afternoon."

She also habitually acknowledges politicians who attend her public events.

At the ceremony to name the criminal courthouse after retired judge and attorneyGeorge N. Leighton in June, Preckwinkle named every judge and politician who attended — catching a ribbing from Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the crowd reminded her that she forgot to mention him.

Asked if she acknowledges public officials to try to keep peace with them, Preckwinkle — who represented a South Side ward as an alderman before she became county board president — talked about a politician's reality.

"The great temptation in public life is to do nothing because no matter what you do, you're going to make enemies. And the people who agree with you will go on with their lives and the people who don't agree with you will hate you forever," she said.

"So the more you do, the more enemies you have. There are a lot of things that make public life difficult and problematic.

"And those who are willing to face the slings and arrows ought to be acknowledged."

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