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Cook County jail population nears capacity again
More electronic monitoring needed, Sheriff says

Saturday, March 02, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

 As the Cook County Jail population nears capacity well before the season of peak arrests, officials are looking for ways to reduce the number of people behind bars, with a focus on placing more people accused of minor crimes on electronic home monitoring.

The population at the sprawling jail on the city's West Side historically bottoms out in the late winter months, but last week it was about 500 detainees shy of its 10,136 maximum, Sheriff Tom Dart said. If trends hold true, the numbers will rise by at least 500 come summer, he added. 

 "I'm looking at what's coming this summer," Dart said "I don't know what I'm going to do."

 It's a significant reversal for a system that since 2002 had seen its population decline from a high of about 11,000, which left people sleeping on floors or in shifts. The numbers began climbing again in late 2011 as time spent behind bars lengthened.

 Bookings shot up in late 2012, as police and judges worked to quell an uptick in violence that has shined an unkind national spotlight on Chicago. And the number of people out on electronic monitors while awaiting trial or serving short sentences decreased from 1,257 in mid-November to 829 on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, who oversees a federal consent decree that governs jail operations, has asked lawyers for Dart and Chief Judge Timothy Evans of the Cook County Circuit Court to submit position papers on the electronic monitoring by Friday.

Kendall specifically asked them to address the issue of whether state law allowed judges to place people on electronic monitoring if they didn't also order them to post bond.

Dart said the electronic monitoring numbers started "dropping off the cliff" in mid-November after judges began ordering far fewer people placed on electronic monitoring and in some cases required the posting of bond — which some detainees could not make.

Judges last month also began making "recommendations" that people be placed on monitoring, instead of ordering it, Dart said. He needs orders, not recommendations, to avoid taxpayer liability, and judges in bond court are in the best position to decide who is appropriate for the program, he said.

If more were released, "that could get me through the summer," Dart said. "I don't need that big of a breathing room here."

 Evans, however, said in an email exchange that the federal courts have given the sheriff "absolute authority to place up to 1,500 people on (electronic monitoring) at any given time to reduce and prevent overcrowding at the jail.

" The sheriff, he added, is "entitled to the same immunity as other public entities" upon the release of prisoners, although Dart's lawyers contend the sheriff is not protected by the absolute immunity given to judges. 

The chief judge also said that the sheriff released on electronic monitoring only 5,760 of 10,200 people judges ordered so released between August 2011 and last November.

Dart said certain conditions of such releases, like connecting with a relative at their home to set up the monitoring system, could not be met. The sheriff conceded that judges were not provided with necessary feedback on those cases and that he has since taken steps to correct that.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle contends more people need to be released on electronic monitoring and so-called I-bonds, where they sign a pledge to appear in court when their cases are called.

"Here in Cook County, we put too much emphasis on nonviolent felonies," Preckwinkle said. "We're holding people in detention who ultimately will be sentenced to probation and released, or have the charges dropped against them. Our jail far exceeds the national average for the percentage of people held pretrial."

"The unfortunate truth is that our judges have shown a reluctance to set bond at an amount that people can actually pay," she added. Preckwinkle has made reform of the county's criminal justice system a key issue. She would like it to focus more on rehabilitation of drug offenders and less on punishment and believes that keeping people behind bars has a disproportionate impact on poor, minority people. She also frequently notes that it costs $143 a day to keep someone in jail.

There has been some talk of expanding the capacity at the jail, which would cost tens of millions of dollars, plus the cost of staffing. That, Preckwinkle said, would be "an extraordinary waste of public resources. We're going to figure out how to get the jail population down, and we're not building any more physical facilities to house people."

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