Program aims for inmate reduction

The news: In March, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office celebrated the first anniversary of its Deferred Prosecution program. More than 370 offenders who have been accepted into the program can avoid jail time and get their felony charges dismissed after successful completion.

Behind the news: The program is part of a push to cut costs by finding alternatives to incarceration, one of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s plans to reduce the population of the Cook County Jail, the biggest single-site jail in the country.

The corrections facility has a capacity of about 10,000, according to a spokeswoman from the sheriff’s office, but the number of inmates at any one time can fluctuate between 8,000 and 10,000.

Preckwinkle attributed the overcrowding to a lack of alternative sentencing programs that keep low-level offenders coming back, turning the jail into a “kind of revolving door.” Instead, Preckwinkle has put forward substitutes like day reporting centers for offenders on probation with the goal of reducing the average daily population to 7,500 in fiscal year 2012.

“We strongly support her effort to reduce incarcerating people for low-level offenses, and believe it will see great savings throughout the entirety of the system,” said Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project.

In the short term, the county has to cover the upfront costs for theses alternative programs, a difficulty at a time when budgets are shrinking.

The budget for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, fell more than $47 million between fiscal years 2010 and 2012, from $458 million to $411 million.

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