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County officials: End felony arrests for prostitution to reduce jail crowding

Thursday, March 21, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovon

All prostitution arrests would be misdemeanors in Cook County if prosecutors heed elected officials’ call for a moratorium on felony charges — among other measures — to lower the increasing population at Cook County Jail.

With the Cook County jail nearing capacity, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, backed by Board President Toni Preckwinkle and several other commissioners, is asking State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to place a moratorium on charging suspected prostitutes with a felony.

After a single prostitution conviction, suspects can face a felony in a subsequent arrest, which Gainer calls “draconian.” “Most states in the country don’t do it like we do it. Only eight states have a statute for felony prostitution — and Illinois is one of them,” Gainer told the Sun-Times. “With the jail hitting its limits in population, it’s incumbent for us to look at who actually needs to spend two months in jail awaiting trial,” she said, noting her research shows the cost of jailing suspected prostitutes costs upwards of $9.5 million. “There are better options.”

Under a resolution introduced Wednesday at the regular County Board meeting, officials are also urging the state Legislature to amend Illinois law and wipe the felony prostitution charge off the books.

Reached later in the day, Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly says her boss is backing the legislation but hadn’t reviewed the moratorium proposal. For that reason, Daly declined to comment on the proposed moratorium.

The discussion comes as the County Jail grapples with a near-capacity jail. According to Preckwinkle, the jail’s population jumped to 10,008 detainees on Monday, “the highest we’ve had since March 2005,” Preckwinkle said. The jail’s capacity is about 10,150.

It was just under 10,000 on Wednesday, but Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has expressed concern that it will exceed capacity come summer when arrests spike. Preckwinkle has been banging the drum about sending suspects awaiting trial on non-violent crimes home under house arrest — or electronic monitoring — or handing them recognizance bonds, which allow defendants to be released without posting bail. “Cook County puts too much focus on non-violent felonies,” Preckwinkle said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’re holding people in detention who ultimately will be sentenced to probation and released or have their charges against them dropped,” Preckwinkle said. “Cook County jail far exceeds the national percentage for people held pre-trial,” she said, citing U.S. Department of Justice statistic showing 48 percent of suspects remain behind bars as their cases wind their way through court.

She said Dart has been given authority, by a federal court panel, to release up to 1,500 detainess on home electronic monitoring when the jail gets crowded; she says he’s released just under 200.

The judiciary, too, has the authority to order electronic monitoring, but has switched to a toothless recommendation, which as resulted in precipitous drop in those under house arrest. “I would like the judges and the sheriff to do their duty,” Preckwinkle said, adding that she wasn’t exploring giving the sheriff added funding to keep more people behind bars. “There’s no need for new beds at the jail.”

Also contributing to the surge in population is a recent spike in arrests as well as an increase in the amount of time suspects spend behind bars as their cases wind through the justice system.

Dart spokesman Frank Bilecki said: “We are confident that President Preckwinkle’s commitment to public safety is consistent with Sheriff Dart’s. We must be clear that the issue is one of capacity within the jail. While electronic monitoring is one issue we are working with the judiciary on, it is not and will never be the solution to our current population pressures.”

Chief Judge Tim Evans as he has in the past, said the duty of reducing the jail population lies squarely in the lap of the sheriff — and not something the judiciary should consider in court proceedings. “According to Illinois law, the purpose of a bail hearing is for a judge to decide how best to ensure the return of the defendant to court and to protect public safety,” Evans said in an emailed statement. “The purpose of a bail hearing is not to reduce the jail population.”

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