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Jail-stay statistics 'ridiculous, flawed': expert

Thursday, September 29, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter

Cook County officials have been misled by "ridiculous," "skewed" and "flawed" statistics about how long inmates are staying in Cook County Jail, a criminal justice expert said Wednesday.

Though the John Howard Association reported the average length of stay is 180 days and many have pointed to that six-month stay in calling for radical jail reforms, a study shows the average stay is actually about 37 days.

That would put Cook County in line with the average stay in jails in New York and Los Angeles.

"Our jail is pretty much like every other jail," William Quinlan, chairman of the county's Judicial Advisory Council, said after reading the report prepared by American University Professor Joseph Trotter and his staff.

The U.S. Department of Justice and Cook County paid about $90,000 to commission the study, which analyzed whether slowed court processes are causing unusually long stays in the county jail.

While the study found areas to improve the flow in criminal courts, it found no unusual backlog of inmates waiting for a trial.

Trotter said statistics showing 180 days as a length of stay "just don't make sense," adding "Cook County is doing as well or better" than most jails on length of stay. He called the John Howard figures "ridiculous."

Jail conditions

But Charles Fasano, of the jail watchdog John Howard Association, stood by the 180-day figure, calling it an accurate "snapshot" the group took of the length of stay of inmates in jail on a random day.

He said that depending on the math, the 37-day stay could also be cited as accurate, though he also noted the 255 inmates who've sat more than three years, waiting for trial.

Trotter's report was given Wednesday to U.S. District Court Judge George Marovich, who called county officials in to determine whether they're complying with a federal order ensuring good conditions at the county jail.

While pleased to see Trotter's report, Marovich said he's more interested in a separate staffing needs study now in the works.

Officials said it will be ready in November, in time for the county to budget new jail positions.

Last year, county officials approved the hiring of 283 new jail guards to improve staff-to-inmate ratios, with a demand for hundreds more to come.

Trotter's report also showed the need for improvements in pushing inmates' criminal cases through the system -- something Quinlan said is on the way.

Though the courts are closing one file for every new one opened, Quinlan said cases will now be categorized to ensure their quick movement through the system.

"Lawyers control the [court] calendar here," Trotter said. "But they're no longer going to get passes on continuances just because the other side agrees to it."



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