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Improving justice in Cook County

Sunday, May 24, 2015
Chicago Tribune

Two years ago, Cook County's top officials sat side-by-side for an interview on Channel 11 WTTW's weeknight program, "Chicago Tonight." It was a grab-the-popcorn moment. Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart clashed repeatedly over who was responsible for overcrowding at Cook County Jail. Dart blamed judges. Evans blamed Dart. Preckwinkle sat uncomfortably between them like Sweden, occasionally interjecting with advice for both of them. Welcome to Illinois-as-usual We're pretty sure show host Phil Ponce needed headache medicine afterward. It was clear Cook County's leaders, all Democrats, might be of the same party but certainly not the same mind. The chances of alleviating an overcrowded jail and reforming a slow, inefficient court system seemed remote. They couldn't agree on much of anything. Fast forward to May 7, 2015. At a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Evans, Preckwinkle and Dart, joined by Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, talked about their efforts to relieve jail overcrowding and to streamline and improve the criminal justice system. The presentation was cordial. OK, mostly. Preckwinkle is positioning her chief of staff, Kimberly Foxx, to challenge Alvarez in the 2016 Democratic primary. But nobody overturned a bread basket or threw a flank of Maggiano's chicken Parmesan at a fellow elected official. The bottom line was clear: They're finally working together and making progress on improving a bureaucratic morass in Cook County. The jail population is down, allowing two divisions to close. Judges are assigning more defendants to electronic monitoring when it's appropriate, without creating more risk to the public. The time many defendants spend in the jail before they go to trial has been reduced. Prosecutors are putting more emphasis on treatment for drug offenders. And all sides are meeting regularly. There's less finger-pointing, more cooperation.It took the extraordinary intervention of the Illinois Supreme Court, at Preckwinkle's request about 18 months ago, to get this done. At the time of the "Chicago Tonight" interview, the jail held more than 10,000 inmates and Dart was paying to have some prisoners housed in other county jails. Judges were reluctant to release defendants on electronic monitoring for fear they would be blamed if the defendant committed a crime. The court's pretrial services division, designed to guide judges on which defendants posed a risk and which could be released pending trial, was an expensive failure. So people sat in jail. And sat. And sat. Even some arrested for minor infractions could stay locked up for months, at a high cost to taxpayers. ""  Following Preckwinkle's prodding, the Supreme Court conducted a full review of the pretrial services division and made 40 recommendations to Evans, who oversees it. Evans has completed 28 of the recommendations; all 40 are expected to be completed by midsummer. That's real progress. The jail population is below 8,000, in part because Evans directed judges to put more emphasis on alternatives to jailing defendants. He made language interpreters more accessible to speed up the interviewing process before defendants show up in court. Alvarez leaned on her attorneys to move offenders more quickly through the system. She announced recently that her office would no longer prosecute people arrested for minor possession of marijuana offenses. Those charged with felony possession of drugs will go through a deferred prosecution program that offers treatment. Dart has improved his inventory of who's in the jail and opened a pilot mental health clinic at the Markham Courthouse. The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, once notorious for patronage abuse and filthy, chaotic conditions, saw vast improvement under the direction of Earl Dunlap, who was appointed by a federal judge in 2007 to take over the facility. Dunlap recently stepped down and early reports on new director Leonard Dixon, appointed by Evans, are positive. There is still a long way to go in Cook County's justice system. A significant number of inmates suffer from serious mental health issues. Dart, who calls the jail the largest mental health care provider in the state, recently hired Nneka Jones Tapia, a psychologist, as the jail's new executive director. Give credit to Evans, Dart and Alvarez for taking steps to make the criminal justice system more efficient and fair. Give credit to Preckwinkle for being impatient, for having the audacity to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to step in. Give credit to the Supreme Court, particularly Justice Anne Burke, for forcing change. Yes, the justice system here is still far from perfect. The courts still suffer from having to absorb too many lackluster, ill-equipped judges, and that will always be the case as long as party loyalty and nice-sounding ballot names trump legal qualifications on election day. Merit selection. Please. But things are working better. Fewer silos, more cooperation, and the results to show for it.

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