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County Board to vote on transfer of inmate release program to Preckwinkle

Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle could soon take control of a nonviolent inmate release program that is overseen by Sheriff Tom Dart.

Under a federal court order aimed at controlling the Cook County jail’s population, Dart can sidestep judges and release inmates accused of minor crimes to electronic monitoring while they await trial.

“The sheriff has not really used that power,” Commissioner Larry Suffredin said.

On Wednesday, the county board — with Dart’s blessing — will decide whether to request a transfer of power to Preckwinkle. The request will require the approval of a federal court, which monitors jail conditions, before it could take effect.

For decades, Cook County Jail has been subject to federal scrutiny after a lawsuit was filed over inadequate health care, overcrowding and other problems. According to standards set by the federal overseer, the jail — which currently holds about 9,800 inmates — has a maximum population of 10,500, officials said.

“There’s only a couple solutions: One is to build another jail. The other option is to take nonviolent offenders and put them on electronic monitoring,” Commissioner Peter Silvestri said.

Dart has worked with Preckwinkle to transfer the authority. But Dart’sjail chief, Cara Smith, pushed back against the assertion that the sheriff was unwilling to use the “extraordinary remedy” to release additional inmates to electronic monitoring.

“We’ve identified everybody in the jail that qualifies under the order, and we’ve put them before the magistrate,” Smith said, referring to a panel of two retired judges who vet cases for Dart. “One of the misconceptions out there is that we have this large population of people that should be on electronic monitoring but aren’t — which is just not true.”

Preckwinkle’s staff said their boss begs to differ.

“I would say that there may be a difference of opinion over whether or not there are people . . . who could be released,” said Juliana Stratton, who oversees criminal justice issues for Preckwinkle. “Many people stay lingering in the jail only because they can’t afford to pay their bond.”

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