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County leaders discuss flaws in justice system

Monday, May 11, 2015
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Jack Silverstein

A man in Cook County is eating the jail.

The mentally ill man removes screws from furniture, pieces of metal and even strips of leather from his restraints and attempts to eat them.

Because of that, he is kept in a room by himself, often naked, and is watched around the clock by a correctional officer.

He has cost taxpayers close to $1 million in health bills.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart told that story Thursday at a City Club of Chicago luncheon.

It is, Dart said, an example of the strain on correctional facilities nationwide due to cuts in mental health services.

That was Dart’s piece of the criminal justice puzzle to which he returned again and again during a panel discussion with three of the other primary stakeholders in Cook County’s criminal justice system: State’s Attorney Anita M. Alvarez, Chief Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

The moderator, Paul Green, stressed at the outset that the event would be “a discussion, not a debate.” And though direct interplay between the four panelists was indeed at a minimum, the tension between their respective spheres was evident throughout.

The one area of agreement for Alvarez, Dart, Evans and Preckwinkle? The system is flawed.

Its greatest problems and any potential solution? That was another matter that yielded different perspectives.

Dart focused on mental health issues, saying that in 45 states, a jail or prison is that state’s largest mental health care provider. He added that about a third of Cook County’s 7,000-person jail population is mentally ill.

“God knows what the governor’s office is talking about would be a disaster,” Dart said about Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget cuts to the state’s mental health facilities.

“When they start thinking about these great savings, I wish somebody there has a functioning brain.”

Cook County Justice from City Club of Chicago on Vimeo.

Evans shared Dart’s concerns, saying that about 2 million mentally ill people nationwide are in correctional facilities.

“I don’t think that anybody should have to go to jail to have access to mental health services,” Evans said.

For Preckwinkle, the stress on the system involves themes she’s often talked about in office: race, class and laws. About 86 percent of the jail population is black or brown, she said, despite those populations totaling about 50 percent of the county.

Many are there because they cannot pay their cash bond.

Preckwinkle told a story about a group of South African delegates who toured the jail. At the end, one asked the guide: “Where is the jail for white people?”

Additionally, 90 percent of people in the jail are awaiting trial, she said, 70 percent of whom are accused of nonviolent crimes.

Dart concurred, saying that the jail has about 250 people right now whose most serious offense is retail theft, plus another 100 on criminal trespassing, which he described as people who “broke into some place most likely to sleep.”

The average length of stay in the jail for those people is 112 and 140 days, respectively.

The cost of keeping them is $143 a day.

“Why are we jailing people for stealing six bars of soap at $143 a day as they await the disposition of their case?” Preckwinkle asked.

Among the solutions is electronic monitoring.

When Preckwinkle took office in 2010, the jail population was 10,500. The population is now under 8,000 — the lowest since 1991 — thanks in large part to having 2,300 people on electronic monitoring.

“I want to thank you Judge Evans,” Preckwinkle said in one of the few direct exchanges between panelists. She also thanked Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, who was in attendance, for being a “champion of criminal justice reform in Cook County.”

Electronic monitoring saves taxpayers $70 million a year, Evans said. The issue, though, is that leaders must strike the balance between relieving strain on the system and protecting the public.

“We can’t just open up the jail doors and let everybody walk out,” Evans said.

But, Preckwinkle said, the percentage of people who don’t show up for court or reoffend while on electronic monitoring is the same as it was when only 19 percent were extended that courtesy — about 3 or 4 percent.

Today, 66 percent of defendants are released through monitoring.

Preckwinkle said she favors decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana to stop detaining people for acts that society finds “offensive” or “annoying.”

“They arrest kids for having joints in their pockets and shooting dice on the sidewalk,” Preckwinkle said. “That is annoying, but I don’t think it merits being put in the criminal justice system and having a record, especially since they do this to black and brown kids and not white kids.”

Alvarez also expressed concern for minority children.

“There are too many black and brown children underground who should not be there,” Alvarez said, referring to gun deaths.

“What do our gun laws look like?” Alvarez asked. “An offender on a UUW — an unlawful use of a weapon — the minimum is a year. What does he serve? He serves three months and he’s back out on the street.”

When that offender commits another crime, it is invariably violent, Alvarez said.

“We have to be tough on the violence,” she said.

The question of what to do with nonviolent offenders bounced around the panel for the entire hourlong discussion.

“I don’t want people to leave under the impression that the only reason people are locked up is if they steal a few candy bars,” Evans said.

Many of those people have “a long criminal history,” Evans said, including convictions for various violent crimes.

“We cannot open the door to let them go just because they are charged currently with stealing candy bars,” he said.

He and Alvarez also lauded the efforts and impact of alternative courts.

There were six when Alvarez took office in 2008. On June 1, the county will launch its 30th alternative court, a prostitution court operating out of the domestic violence courthouse at 555 W. Harrison St.

But those courts, including mental health courts, have a small impact, Dart said.

“Their court calls are very small. Two hundred, 300 cases a year,” he said. “I have 3,000 people in the jail on a given day with mental illness.”

The question of Alvarez’s candidacy for re-election next year — and Preckwinkle backing her chief of staff, Kimberly M. Foxx, for the position — only came up when reporters asked after the event. Preckwinkle would not answer any questions about the election.

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