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We lock up too many people

Tuesday, April 02, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Toni Preckwinkle

As new policing strategies and legislation are being considered to address gun violence in Chicago, decisions can’t be made solely through the lens of police response. Instead, they should be viewed through the broader scope of our justice system and the cost to individuals, families, communities and taxpayers.

The Chicago Police Department policing strategy has drawn attention to a fundamental weakness in Cook County’s justice system.

Chicago is applying an approach commonly referred to as a broken windows strategy, in which police officers focus on minor offenses to prevent more serious ones from occurring. Chicago plans to allow police to arrest people who fail to pay tickets for public drunkenness or gambling, in an attempt to change behavior and make neighborhoods safer.

This strategy worked in New York City without crippling the public safety system because Bronx and Kings counties do not unnecessarily hold people when they are charged with nonviolent offenses. The arrest removes the person from the street but does not lead to prolonged detention at great financial and human cost.

Chicago is not New York. And Cook County is not Kings County. Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods are sparsely populated and isolated from the rest of the city, in strong contrast to poor neighborhoods in New York. And the criminal justice system there is centralized, which leads to better law enforcement coordination.

While I have voiced my concerns about the efficacy of the city’s policing strategy, I’m more concerned about the flaws it has highlighted in Cook County courts and jails.

In Cook County we detain too many people charged with nonviolent offenses for ?too long. Cook County Jail far exceeds the national average for the percentage of ?people held before they’ve been tried.

The average length of time someone stays locked up in Cook County Jail went up 5 percent from 2011 to 2012. The average time behind bars is now 57 days.

That has resulted in our jail population hovering alarmingly close to maximum capacity in recent weeks, which is especially troublesome for this time of year, when the numbers are generally lower.

Part of the reason people stay as long as they do is that it takes family members more time to come ?up with the bail.

Taxpayers foot the $143-a-day bill to keep someone in jail.

There are a series of reasonable alternatives that can be employed to reduce the stress on our crowded jail.

First, Illinois law directs judges to set reasonable bond amounts that people can afford to pay.

Second, judges have the authority to release people on electronic monitoring without ordering a cash bond.

Third, judges can issue more bonds that allow low-flight-risk detainees to sign a pledge to appear in court when their cases are called.

Finally, a federal consent decree that governs jail operations maintains that the Cook County sheriff’s office is authorized to release up to 1,500 eligible pretrial detainees on electronic monitoring to prevent overcrowding.

If we managed to reduce the average stay to what it was in 2007, it would result in roughly 1,900 fewer people behind bars. That alone would be a daily savings of more than $270,000.

There is no need to build a new facility to house more people. That would be an extraordinary waste of public resources. What we need is a criminal justice system that focuses on prosecuting violent criminals who are a threat to public safety.

It is within the power of Cook County criminal justice leaders — the chief judge, sheriff, state’s attorney and public defender — to reduce the jail population and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board.



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