CN May 2, 2013

Why is Cook County Jail suddenly reaching the bursting point? It’s at capacity, when its population had been declining in recent years.  Well, it’s partly because we seem to be locking more people up, but it’s also because Cook County is releasing fewer people into electronic monitoring . Remember that almost everyone in this jail (it’s not a prison) is awaiting trial. So in many cases the people at Cook County Jail are those who can’t afford bail.

In the past weeks it has become a huge political fight between Sheriff Tom Dart and Chief Judge Tim Evans, with Board President Toni Preckwinkle somewhere in the middle. There was a remarkable dustup among them on Chicago Tonight a few weeks ago.

“This is not a problem that’s unique to Cook County,” explains panelist John Maki, John Howard Association Executive Director. “This is a problem with mass incarceration – the fact that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. Jails and prisons across the country are dealing with this exact same problem.”

Maki decries public policy that can jail people multiple times on minor charges, while creating long, exaggerated rap sheets.

“For a long time, we’ve used prison as, not only a primary response to crime,  but also a lot of our social ills,” he says. As a result, people with drug addictions, mental health issues and prostitution charges are filling the jails and prisons.

And that’s what leads us to the Cook County dispute. Panelist Eric Zorn, who’s written recently about it,  explains the dilemma. “The Federal courts…have given the Sheriff the ability to release up to 1500 prisoners on his own say-so, at any given time with some conditions. I feel that this is an extraordinary shoving-off onto the sheriff of something that’s a judicial responsibility. ”

Sheriff Dart says that, almost overnight, County judges stopped issuing court orders to release  people with electronic monitoring, opting instead to issue “recommendations” to the sheriff.

“There’s no such thing as a judicial recommendation,” says Zorn. “the judge is not an advice columnist. A judge issues orders. he doesn’t say – I recommend that we be quiet in the court.”

It all happened very quickly, according to Zorn. “It happened in mid-November of last year, they were issuing about 25 orders a day for electronic monitoring. Ever since then, there’s only been about 33 orders total from then until now. So you’ve got this extraordinary and precipitous drop-off that Judge Evans refuses to explain.”

As a result, we’re seeing a situation in which neither law enforcement nor the judiciary seem to want the responsibility for releasing offenders who might  go back into society and commit a major, violent crime.

“We’re seeing this as a local problem,” explains Maki. “This is a national problem. I think here the politics have so overwhelmed the situation that…we need an independent broker to come in. And there are groups like this.. The National Institute of Corrections, the law enforcement group that solves these kinds of problems…they would come in as an independent – they have no relationship with these folks – here’s an analysis, here’s a road-map out of, the fact that you’ve been violating the Constitution for forty years – here’s what needs to be done.”

“I think John’s right, it’d be nice to bring in an outside force,” says Zorn. “But it ought to be and is the responsibility of the judiciary and the sheriff to work together, and to figure this out and to realize that we need to  lock up dangerous people. We all agree with that, but we also need to make sure that we’re not holding people for minor offenses,  or for non-violent offenses.”

Cook County jail overcrowding is our major topic this week, but we also talk briefly about the looming schools closure vote and Mayor Emanuel’s ballyhooed effort to soften the burden of our infamous parking-meter deal.

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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