From the ground up: Opinions on ending the crowding at Cook County Jail

[Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]

[Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]

The issue of crowding at Cook County Jail doesn’t stay out of the headlines for long. It’s back again, this time as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposes a plan to reduce the number of individuals housed in pre-trial detention.

Chicago Tribune summarized the plan: “Preckwinkle, with [Cook County] Sheriff Tom Dart’s blessing, will ask the Cook County Board next month to sign off on a new plan to oversee the release of jail inmates on electronic monitoring. The job — and the risk — would fall to her office.”

This isn’t the first time solutions to jail crowding have been floated.

Dart has said the answer lies in keeping mental health clinics open and tackling the backlogged court system head on. Timothy Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, wants more money to run the courts.

Aggressive policing coupled with prosecutors who ask few questions about charges meted out by police officers may be a factor in jail crowding, too, The Chicago Reporter’s latest investigation found. According to our analysis, eight out of 10 misdemeanor cases that landed people in Cook County Jail between 2006 and 2012 were dismissed—after people had spent time awaiting trial.

But what do the players on the ground – attorneys, reporters, activists – see as a solution to crowding at Cook County Jail? Here’s what several say:

Ali Abid, criminal justice fellow at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, said  Monday on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight”: “This would be a fine stopgap measure, but we’re not going to address why Cook County Jail is overcrowded unless we look at the bond court, the gateholders as to who is getting in and why… We’re still going to have to move away from the symptoms of the process and down to the underlying issue. And that is we don’t do the assessments that need to be done to run a pretrial services department correctly.”

Mariame Kaba, executive director of Project NIA, an advocacy and popular education center, told The Chicago Reporter on Tuesday: “I guess that electronic monitoring could help alleviate the crowding. We should also look to decreasing the bond amounts so that indigent people can afford to post them.  All in all though, we’re going to need statewide reforms of our drug laws, more jobs, a different policing policy, and a way to address our mental health crisis – especially NOT closing community-based clinics—in order to address this problem.”

Mick Dumke, a writer for the Chicago Reader, said Monday on “Chicago Tonight”: “I think we have to find out a little bit more about it… Why the jail is crowded is a very complicated issue. But the politics aren’t very complicated. It’s been a series of one official after another passing the buck. To have someone who steps forward and says I am going to take this on, I think is remarkable, but you have to say this is a dare on some level.”

The Chicago Tribune editorial board earlier this week wrote: “It’s good to see somebody take responsibility for something… [but] shifting electronic monitoring to Preckwinkle’s office is not the best solution. She says she’ll find the money, possibly by calling on help from private foundations. The real solution requires a court system that works with greater urgency and efficiency so cases get resolved.”
 

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