CN January 19 2017


Our guest this week runs a mental health institution so vast that it’s been called the largest in the country.

He also runs a pretty significant job training operation, a substance abuse clinic, an anti-violence effort, and he’s a major health-care consultant, channeling tens of thousands of Chicagoans into the Affordable Care Act.

He’s the last resort when people must be removed from their apartments, and he keeps watch over 9,000 incarcerated people.

Tom Dart is the Cook County Sheriff, and he joins  us this week to talk about the Cook County Jail and the massive challenges facing his institution.

He’s especially proud of his electronic monitoring program, which, he says, is responsible for bringing down the jail’s census so dramatically that they were able to demolish some dormitories. “I went from having on average 500 people on the electronic monitoring to about 2,500, so do the math,” he explains. “That’s a 2,000-person difference, and when my population has been 8,200 most of the time, 8,200 plus 2,000 gets you to what, 10,200.”

A major reason why so many people are in Cook County Jail, Dart explains, is that the court system runs so slowly. “Why in God’s name is any stolen car case taking more than three months?” he asks. “He was in the car or wasn’t in the car? A drug case, it was possession. Either he had the drugs or didn’t have the drugs. People say well the lab takes a while, this and that and the other thing. The reality of it is there are certain cases, stolen car cases, burglaries, that should never be in the system for more than months, I mean literally three to four months.”

“And so the system just is not terribly thoughtful,” he continues, “And underlying it is loads of good people in the system, but it’s horribly inefficient and there’s very little pressure on anybody to move cases. And people will often say well the defendant has a speedy trial, right. That is virtually never used.”

Another complication adding to his high census is the fact that some inmates actually prefer to stay there.  I an individual is tried and sentenced to five years, for example, his attorneys may attempt to slow the inmate’s assignment to a downstate prison far from the individual’s Chicago-area family and friends. “We have 1,000 people a year who serve all their time with me. They get a sentence and they literally are driven down to Stateville. They fill out some paperwork and then they give them money for a bus to come back,” he explains.

Then there are the inmates whose trials are delayed so much that their eventual sentence is shorter than their time already served at CCJ. “People have gone beyond what the sentence would have been,” he tells us, “and you don’t get credit for that. It’s not like they give you a voucher for your next time you get involved with the criminal justice system. And those numbers are stunning too. I mean those are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of days beyond what they end up getting.

A major thrust for his administration has been what he calls “the criminalization of the mentally ill.” And there are a lot of them in Cook County Jail. “I can give you a pretty decent number. It’s right around between 23% and 30%, in that range. Where the fluctuation only occurs is whether or not they stay in my custody or whether they are released to the street.”

He said he initially tried to persuade judges that he needed help with this troubled population. “I felt that if I just enlightened people, that if the judges at bond court just knew that these people that they are seeing were mentally ill, and that was what the underlying reason that they are here is, not because of a criminal nature, I could change some of the outcomes. And mind you, that experiment was a miserable failure. The judiciary didn’t buy into any of the stuff I was doing.”

The mentally ill inmates with whom Dart has contact are not inherently criminals, he explains. They’re ill. Their anti-social behavior gets them into trouble, and begins their slide into the justice system. “They’re living at home,” he says. “Their family is trying, trying, trying. The families can’t do it anymore. There’s a domestic case at the house, they’re asked to leave. They have nowhere to go. They’re wandering the streets. They find a place to stay, they’re not supposed to be there, they get arrested. They are trying to find something to eat, they get arrested. It’s the most inhumane thoughtless system that you could devise, and in addition to put the cherry on top of it it’s the most expensive one.”

Dart tells us that the time a politician or government leader gets, to make a difference in people’s lives, is very short. Too short, he says, for passing time and for niceties. “Down in Springfield people get very collegial. It’s great to be collegial and have a decent relationship with people, but sometimes what happens is everybody is afraid to upset somebody, and so no one pushes an issue because this person isn’t comfortable and this one is not comfortable and so on. Well guess what, we don’t have the luxury of sitting there and taking our time. I always tell people we have about 200 people a day leave our jail, and if I’m not putting a plan together for them virtually no one else is. And I don’t have the luxury to sit back and say we’re going to get around to that, and you know all the mentally ill people that are being jumped in the jail and stuff we’re studying that. We’re having meetings, good meetings. I mean the doughnuts are great, the sandwiches are awesome, good meetings. It’s like you know what, I’m done with that stuff, and I tell people, I go, listen, we have these unique little windows where we can affect change to help real people, and it is the height of outrage to sit there and burn that time, because I just don’t want to upset anybody. I just want to be friends. I don’t want anybody not to like me and I want to run for this or that or this or that. I was like no, be happy with the job you have now and knock it out of the park, and don’t leave anything left on the table when you’re done to sit there and say I wish I took that issue on. I wish I took that issue. I wish I was more aggressive.”


Our TV show is also pretty good radio. Listen to it in your earbuds on Soundcloud.

You can also read a full transcript HERE:cn-transcript-jan-19-2017



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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