Sheriff Announces Sentencing Reforms in Cook County

The following story originally appeared in EXTRA News, a bi-lingual community newspaper in Chicago, IL, on Mar 19, 2015.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart announced a new initiative aimed at reducing Chicago’s over-crowded jails last week.

“I can’t tell you the number of cases we’ve come across where a person is staying in our custody beyond the length of time that the legal statute allows them to be,” noted Dart in response to the number of individuals held in the Cook County facilities awaiting trial.

Dart announced a commission of county officials last Tuesday who will identify five to 10 cases per week where an individual can be moved quickly through the court system, and called for “rocket docket” legislation in Springfield to expedite court proceedings along strict sentencing guidelines for specific crimes like petty theft or trespassing. The initiative would use alternative methods of sentencing, such as electronic monitoring and support for the mentally ill to reduce the overall expense to taxpayers and address the over-crowding in county jails.

The Cook County Jail sits on 96 acres and is one of the largest single-site county pre-detention facilities in the U.S., according to the Cook County Sheriff’s website. It covers more than eight city blocks near the Little Village neighborhood and has ten divisions, a health services facility, two education departments, a privatized food service and commissary agency, and four additional onsite Sheriff’s departments.

The jail has an average daily population of 9,000. An average of 1,400 people are enrolled in the Electronic Monitoring Program that allows “non-violent, pre-trial and short-time sentenced inmates” to remain incarcerated in their homes. Dart noted that the current number of people being held at Cook County facilities is closer to 11,000.

“How do you feel about spending $20,000 for a guy who steals a Snickers bar?” Dart commented on a case of an one individual who spent 114 days in jail for stealing candy bars, costing taxpayers more than $16,000.

“We’re saying move the case ahead. Find the person guilty and get them convicted. Don’t let them sit here,” insisted Dart. “We have a system that is just not, in any way, taking in the human element. These are real people and they deserve to be treated in a certain way. There are people who should not be here.”

Dart’s initiative follows a similar pledge by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals across the state. In his 2016 budget proposal, Rauner intends to cut state expenditures on Illinois’ 48,000 prisoners through sentencing reforms that would see an increase in individuals with GPS monitors, an increase in mental health support services and probationary cases. Rauner’s initial budget proposal would see the Department of Corrections funding increase to $1.4 billion.

Rauner’s cuts have already been met with controversy, however, discretionary spending freezes to community groups who actively work to halt violence, like CeaseFire Illinois, are forced to refocus resources that are already stretched thin.

This post is also available in: Spanish

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