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Nearly full now, Cook County jail could be packed this summer

Incoming arrestees arrive incoming areCook County Jail Wednesday March 13 2013. The jail is current 98 percent maximum capacity. Al

Incoming arrestees arrive at the incoming area of Cook County Jail on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. The jail is at a current 98 percent of maximum capacity. Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: April 20, 2013 6:12AM

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says the jail is nearly full, and he’s concerned the facility will be bursting at the seams as summer months approach and arrests typically rise with the mercury.

Late last week, the jail at 27th and California was almost 96 percent full, with a daily population of 9,721. The capacity is about 10,150.

“That will become a humongous problem for me come June, July and August,” Dart told the Chicago Sun-Times in a recent interview.

A confluence of events has prompted the surge in detainees, including a spike in arrests and in the amount of time suspects spend behind bars as their cases wind through the justice system. A recent drop in the number of suspects who go home on electronic monitoring also is pushing up the number of detainees. Dart and Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans blame each other for that decrease.

While the sheriff and chief judge are seemingly at odds, they discussed jail crowding and made some “progress” late last week, a sheriff’s spokesman said, but no details were released.

No doubt, Chicago’s homicide rate and a crackdown on gun and other violent crimes are the reasons the jail is seeing more detainees, Dart said.

“I think there’s definitely that connection,” said Dart, who runs the jail as sheriff. “I know the city has put on a big push. . . . It’s their priority to get people off the streets who are dangerous.”

The county board’s legislative committee is expected to take up the crowding issue at a hearing Tuesday.

That is expected to center on the renewed push to send suspects accused of low-level crimes home with an ankle cuff that allows authorities to monitor them while they’re on house arrest.

In recent weeks, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall — a federal judge who monitors jail operations — has requested that county officials offer written opinions about whether judges, by law, can order a suspect to go home on electronic monitoring without ordering them to pay a cash bond, which has become a source of debate over the years.

Kendall sat down with officials in recent days to discuss the matter.

Sheriff’s spokesman Frank Bilecki said in an emailed statement: “We have had a few issues but we believe we have the framework to address some of the overcrowding issues. The key will be implementation and follow through.”

The sheriff has blamed judges, in part, for the jail’s recent population spike, saying that last fall, judges started recommending that suspects be sent home on electronic monitoring. Dart says he needs a judge’s order to put a suspect on house arrest.

According to Dart’s office, the number of suspects awaiting trial went from 1,121 last year to, most recently, 819.

Evans, the Cook County Circuit Court’s chief judge, says Dart, in charge of electronic monitoring, was “ignoring” about half of the judges’ electronic monitoring orders anyway.

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