The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on the criminal justice system in Illinois. For months, criminal trials were halted, but police across the state continued to make arrests. At the outset of the pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered that detainees who were convicted at trial remain held in county jails instead of being transferred to a state prison.
And though a downstate judge overturned that order last year, several Illinois sheriffs tell WGN Investigates that the state’s Department of Corrections — which operates Illinois prisons — has been too slow to ramp up its acceptance of prisoners.
The slow pace, the sheriffs say, has led to rising inmate populations — all at the expense of county taxpayers.
“Initially, we had no idea exactly how high that [inmate] volume would grow,” Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain told WGN Investigates. “We knew within a short three months that it increased fairly rapidly where trying to balance the quarantine areas during early COVID times, trying to decrease our population. But, of course, as people were sentenced to Department of Corrections, historically, we were dependent on them actually going to Department of Corrections.”
Hain said that feeding, housing and clothing that extra inmates in his custody — 46 of the 389 Kane County Jail detainees — has cost his office more than $500,000.
It’s a similar situation in other collar counties, too. In Lake County, 47 of the jail’s 490 inmates ought to be in IDOC custody. In DuPage County, 43 of the jail’s 448 inmates should be in a state prison. Twenty-one of the Kendall County Jail’s 136 inmates have been convicted at trial and should be in IDOC custody.
At the Cook County Jail — which struggled last year to contain the spread of the coronavirus — more than 700 of the roughly 5,700 inmates should be in the custody of IDOC.
“It’s been a year of this, right? And so I think we understood why we were doing it initially, but at this point it doesn’t really make sense anymore and we need to move forward,” said Dr. Jane Gubser, executive director of programs at the Cook County Jail. “The amount of resources that that’s taken on our end, to keep everybody safe and to take care of them and our staff as well, it’s a lot of people and it keeps growing.”
In a statement to WGN Investigates, a spokesperson for IDOC said the agency is “committed to safely admitting as many men and women from the counties as possible,” adding that IDOC has accepted nearly 6,000 new state prison inmates since last August.
According to IDOC, 69% of Illinois prison inmates have been vaccinated, but only 36% of IDOC staffers have received the shot.