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Preckwinkle vs. Evans: You be the judge

Thursday, October 17, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by John McCarron

They're at it again.

Toni Preckwinkle versus Timothy Evans.

Insiders are calling it "Round 4" in one of the longest-running, if least noticed, sparring matches in Chicago politics. A better billing might be "The Fight From 4," in that bad blood was shed initially in 1983, when Preckwinkle first challenged then-incumbent Evans for alderman of the 4th Ward on the mid-South Side lakefront.

She got clobbered. And clobbered again in "Round 2," aka the City Council elections of 1987. But Preckwinkle is nothing if not strong-willed, and she managed to outpoint the 17-year incumbent in a 1991 "Round 3" squeaker.

Evans, who has made lots of friends in Chicago politics, was subsequently helped into a judgeship and has risen since to become chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court.

Preckwinkle, much admired for her progressive independence during five terms in the council, surprised in 2010 by running against, and defeating, hapless incumbent Todd Stroger for the office of Cook County Board president.

People who follow these things are still trying to get over the irony of a smiling Chief Judge Evans swearing in a smiling President Preckwinkle.

They're not smiling anymore. They're jabbing again, this time over who's to blame for chronic overcrowding at the Cook County Jail.

She claims Evans' judges are setting bails too high and taking too long to dispose of cases. Over and over she points out that 90 percent of the 10,000-and-more inmates at the vast complex at 26th Street and California Avenue are simply awaiting trials ó waiting on average for 57 days at $143 per day. Of those, she says, 70 percent are charged with nonviolent crimes.

He claims his courts are underfunded by the county. Also that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs the jail, could ease overcrowding by diverting more inmates to home confinement using electronic bracelets, and State's Attorney Anita Alvarez could help by having her prosecutors agree to lower bail bonds and embracing more creative sentencing such as daily "boot camp" check-ins or off-campus addiction programs.

It's all very complicated, and all four can point to other statistics for support. For example, of those 70 percent of "pretrial detainees" not charged with violent offenses, 82 percent have rap sheets that list violent offenses.

Dart, in his defense, points out that his jail has become an asylum-of-last-resort for some 2,000 inmates with serious mental illness, or that he can't very well discharge hundreds of homeless inmates to home confinement.

Alvarez, meanwhile, is under pressure not to undercharge arrestees, or agree to low- or no-bond pretrial release, or overly light alternative sentencing. Nobody involved wants publicity like last month's 13-victim shoot-up of a South Side park by gangsters led by a thug recently sentenced to boot camp instead of prison for a gun offense.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was quick to say that the thug and his assault rifle should never have been on the street and to repeat his call for mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, never far behind public opinion, seconded McCarthy and called on state lawmakers to enact three-year prison minimums for having an illegal gun.

Such talk is anathema to Preckwinkle, a former high school history teacher who went on to manage social service nonprofits before entering politics. She sees jails as training schools for bad behavior, and worse, places where nearly one-third of the nation's African-American men are branded for life as unemployable. Her favorite book on the subject is "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

So this match is far from over, and officials from virtually every level of government are being drawn to the ring. (Did I mention Dart is laboring under a federal court agreement to make sure overcrowding is alleviated in the jail? Or that, in response to a Preckwinkle plea for help to the Illinois Supreme Court, a federal mediator is being called in?)

But just now it's Evans versus Preckwinkle at center ring. Last week, in her proposed county budget, she stiffed his request for more money to run the courts. She stiffed Alvarez, too, who wants more to expedite prosecutions. Next venue: County Board budget hearings.

Preckwinkle is an idealist, a headstrong reformer still with a teacher's-got-all-the-answers approach that rubs some people the wrong way.

Evans is a get-along guy, an affable live-and-let-live politician who was recently re-elected overwhelmingly as chief by the Circuit Court judiciary.

Ladies and gentlemen, is there not some way to avoid a "Round 5"?

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