Nearly 9,400 people are sitting in Cook County jail tonight. It’s one of the largest jail systems in the world, and taxpayers are paying the price. The Illinois Supreme Court and county elected officials agree they need to reduce the jail population. But, as WGN’s Gaynor Hall reports, there’s no consensus on how to do that.
“I was 19 when I first went to jail. But I was 14 when I started drinking and getting high,” says ex-offender Patrick Covington of Chicago. “I was just selling to survive, just selling just to feel good for that day. It doesn’t matter about going to jail. I just wanted the drugs.” Covington grew up on Chicago’s West side with a supportive family and a love of baseball. But, feeding his addiction landed him in and out of jail for almost two decades.
Gaynor asks Patrick, “ What was it like spending so much of your life behind bars?” “Lonely.” (Patrick tears up)…“want help and don’t know how to ask for it.”
Patrick spent 499 days in Cook County jail over nearly 20 years. Though there’s no way to know the exact cost, by today’s standards, the cost fo the county would be more then $71,000. And that’s just for one person. Cook County Board President
Toni Preckwinkle is an outspoken critic of the current system. “Every alternative is cheaper; Putting somebody in drug treatment until their trial; putting them in supportive housing; putting them on electronic monitoring. All of them have better results. I think our criminal justice system is dysfunctional. If you look at our jail population, you’d think there are no white people that live in Cook County. Now this is a reflection of the way our criminal justice system has operated over time and continues to operate and it’s profoundly disturbing to me.”
The jail sits at the center of a number of complex issues that Sheriff Tom Dart deals with on a daily basis. “To continue to do just what we’ve been doing for years is not just thoughtless but it also is financially not sustainable.” He says much of the jail population is battling mental health and substance abuse problems, creating a revolving door of inmates who aren’t getting the help they need. The vast majority are crimes of survival. They aren’t out there robbing banks. They aren’t out there harming people, they’re stealing things. They’re breaking in places to sleep.”
Another issue; many people accused of non-violent crimes are just sitting in jail because they can’t afford to bond out. Preckwinkle’s own experiences observing bond court fuel her passion for reforms. “…and two young kids came in, teenagers. They were accused of low level drug possession. Their bond was set at $2000 apiece, which means they had would have to come up with $200 cash. They had no family. No parents. No friends in the courtroom. So they were brought back to the jail cause they didn’t have $200.” Then there’s the backlog of court cases. 90% of inmates in Cook County are awaiting trial, and the average length of stay is 57 days. In late March, the administrative office of the state Supreme Court released a highly critical report on the county’s pre-trial services program, that allows Judges to decide which defendants can be released while they wait for their day in court. It offers 40 recommendations for improvement.
Mike Tardy is the Director of the administrative office for the Illinois Supreme Court. “The goal being protect the public. That the people that are held in jail are those that need to be held. Do not over incarcerate those that you do not. And for those that you release, make sure you use a risk instrument that looks at risk to reoffend and failure to appear.” Mike Tardy was the point person for the report, which urges stakeholders, including Chief Judge Timothy Evans, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Dart, and Preckwinkle, to work together.
Again, Mike Tardy. “While there are pieces that the circuit court needs to be accountable for, and they are, it’s really inviting each of the stakeholders to be a sincere partner in systemic change.” Reducing the jail population also means identifying inmates who can benefit from alternative programs, and then funding those programs.
“We should have plans for people,” says Sheriff Dart. We shouldn’t act puzzled and just kick people out the door who have no opportunities in the community whatsoever and then you’re puzzled why they went back to crime. I always say to people what did you expect them to do?” Patrick Covington finally got the help he needed from a county program. He was given the choice, more jail time, or mandatory rehab. He chose rehab. Now, he’s clean and sober, and working to show others there’s another way to live. “I started to see who I really am. I started to see that once the drugs gone, that I’m just normal guy.”
A group of county and court officials will take a trip this month to observe recent reforms to the bond systems in Washington DC, and Maryland. They want to see if those reforms could be implemented in Chicago. You can find the entire Illinois Suprme Court report and all 40 recommendations at this link.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Mike D’Angelo contributed to this report.