Anyone not following closely would have missed the latest maneuver in the long political battle over expensive, dangerous, and illegal overcrowding at the county jail.
More than two hours into last week's meeting of the Cook County board, the report of the Finance Subcommittee on Legislation was introduced and quickly approved by a routine voice vote. No one commented on the matter. The commissioners moved on to the next item on their 61-page agenda.
But tucked inside the report was a resolution proposing that Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle be given the authority to release some low-risk defendants while they're waiting to go on trial—and, by doing so, to challenge the decisions of judges who won't make the call.
Several minutes passed before north-side commissioner John Fritchey interrupted the proceedings and brought attention back to the report and its proposal. While praising Preckwinkle's efforts to lower the jail population, he asked to change his vote to no. The proposal, he says, is little more than a quick fix. "My biggest concern is that this can be used to buy more time for a flawed system."
The notion that the court and jail system needs reform may be the only point that criminal justice officials agree on. And since most of the problems are out of the public view, officials have felt little urgency to fix them.
The vast majority of jail inmates have not yet been tried for the crimes they're charged with, and about 70 percent are accused of nonviolent offenses, according to a study by Loyola University professor David Olson.
Yet the typical detainee ends up spending at least a couple of weeks behind bars because judges set bond amounts so high that the inmates can't afford to bail out. In 2012, about a fifth of inmates were jailed because they couldn't come up with $6,000 or less.
"As I've said before, the jail is the intersection of racism and poverty," Preckwinkle said after the board meeting.
Overcrowding has serious implications for public safety, since managing the jail is far more difficult when it's bursting with inmates. And at a cost of roughly $143 per inmate per day, incarceration devours financial resources that could be used on crime prevention or rehabilitation.
The issue has been a political and legal problem at least since the 1970s, when the Cook County Jail was first placed under federal court decrees for violating the rights of defendants because of chronic overcrowding.
"As I've said before, the jail is the intersection of racism and poverty."—Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle
In one of the recent rounds in court, a panel of federal judges in 2011 called out the "unexplained reluctance of state judges in Cook County to set affordable terms for bail," which the panel characterized as unconstitutional. As an emergency remedy, the court issued an order allowing the sheriff's office, which oversees the jail, to release up to 1,500 detainees and place them on electronic monitoring until trial. Many defendants were deemed ineligible, including those charged with violent crimes or possessing or dealing significant quantities of hard drugs.
Sheriff Tom Dart hired two retired judges to review the case files of detainees who meet the release criteria. In the 18 months since the order went into effect, the magistrates have examined the cases of 3,800 detainees, but they've deemed only a fraction of them eligible for release. For example, the sheriff's office currently has 147 detainees on electronic monitoring—fewer than 10 percent of what's allowed.
Dart and his aides have made it clear that they don't think it's appropriate for the jailer to be determining who's locked up. "We're entrusted to care for and keep custody of these people if they can't post bond," says Cara Smith, executive director of the jail. But the sheriff's office shouldn't then be able to declare, "'You ten people deserve to be released.' It's a second-guessing of the judge's decisions."
In the meantime, the jail population swelled last summer, eventually hitting 10,182—the highest level in six years—and raising the specter of federal violations as well as safety concerns.
Dart and Preckwinkle decided to try shifting responsibility for the release program to Preckwinkle's office and expanding the criteria so that more detainees are eligible. The move needs approval from the federal court; passage of the resolution by the county board was meant to show that it has broad support.
But that wouldn't resolve longer-term concerns. "I think President Preckwinkle's proposal is a great way of addressing a symptom of the problem," says Ali Abid, a policy analyst for the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. "But we're not going to get at lasting change without reform of the bond court and pretrial services program."
Chief judge Timothy Evans says he's prohibited by law from commenting on issues currently in court. But he recently issued a statement blaming Preckwinkle for cutting the budget for the court system. As a result, he says, cases are not adequately reviewed before bond hearings. "The Cook County Board President is not completely faithful to the facts," he said.
Preckwinkle won't comment on Evans's call for funding more pretrial services. But she's pressured him and other officials to do more to prevent jail crowding. In September she asked the state supreme court to appoint auditors to review trial delays and the bond court system in Cook County.
Last week she, Evans, Dart, and the other top Cook County justice officials met with two retired judges named by the supreme court to work on the jail impasse. No one has commented publicly so far, but sources say the discussions have focused on reducing lengthy delays in the time it takes to bring cases to trial—typically six weeks to two months—as well as setting up a formal process for evaluating bond court.
Bond court judges may be responding already. In recent months they've ordered more defendants on electronic monitoring instead of high cash bonds that lead to jail time.
Fritchey says it's critical not to lose sight of the fact that the jail is full of poor people while those with means—even when they face more serious charges—can walk free. "We need to be intellectually honest about why," he says. "It pains me to believe that the reason this happens is that the people charged with a crime are not sympathetic in the public eye."