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Editorial: Jail crowding is costly, needs to be fixed

Monday, June 17, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Editorial Board

Cook County’s bail system is broken.

People charged with nonviolent crimes, but who don’t have money to make bail, spend weeks or months awaiting trial. Costs to the taxpayers are soaring, and they could go far higher if a federal court orders the county to build a new facility to ease overcrowding.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But the responsibility for this mess is shared by various public officials who have their own power bases, and up until now they haven’t come together to provide a fix.

At Wednesday’s Cook County Board meeting, Commissioner John Fritchey plans to introduce a resolution urging Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans and other stakeholders to revamp the bail system to lower jail admissions by 25 percent a year from now. That’s a reasonable goal.

Right now, 90 percent of the inmates at the county jail are awaiting trial. Of that 90 percent, 70 percent are charged with nonviolent offenses. Those awaiting trial sit in custody for an average of 57 days at a cost of $1,000 a week per inmate.

Under this system, someone charged with a serious, violent offense can leave the jail if he or she has the cash to make bail. Meanwhile, someone accused of a far lesser offense, but who doesn’t have ready cash, stays behind bars. What kind of sense does that make? Personal finances should not dictate bail policy.

Other metropolitan areas do better, Fritchey says. For example, he says, New York releases 70 percent of its suspects on recognizance bonds and Washington, D.C., releases more than 80 percent — 10 times the percentage in Cook County. Nationally, only 60 percent of inmates in local jails are awaiting trial, compared with 90 percent in Cook County, he says.

After taking office, Board President Toni Preckwinkle promptly made a priority of reducing the jail population, not only to save costs but also to avoid the crushing experience of languishing in jail for someone who turns out to be innocent. But last year, the jail’s average daily population was up about 6 percent over 2011 and at its highest since 2007. The jail now is close to capacity, and may exceed it by summer.

To see why this is a tough case to crack, one only need look at what happened after a federal consent decree gave Sheriff Tom Dart the power to hire two retired judges to assess prisoners and free up to 1,500 of them on electronic monitors. Dart says he’s put as many inmates on electronic monitoring as he can under the rules. In an April debate on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” Judge Evans retorted that almost half of the time judges recommend electronic monitoring, Dart doesn’t do it. Dart said Evans is misrepresenting the numbers. Preckwinkle pointed her finger at the judges, saying that since last November, the number of times judges have ordered electronic monitoring has mysteriously plummeted. Evans said the responsibility for jail crowding lies with lawmakers and the sheriff, not the judges.

This doesn’t sound like a group of officials ready to pull together for a solution.

It probably doesn’t help that Evans and Preckwinkle are longtime political rivals, going back to the 1980s and ’90s, when Preckwinkle repeatedly challenged Evans for his Fourth Ward seat on the City Council before finally beating him in 1991. And that Preckwinkle has had public disagreements over Dart’s and Evans’ budgets.

Judges have wide discretion whether to set cash or recognizance bonds. But deciding when to release prisoners is tricky. No one wants to be the next official to free a Willie Horton. That’s why we need cooperation among all the officials in the criminal justice system to get a bail policy that works.

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