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Time stands still in Cook County Jail for some inmates

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: June 27, 2013 6:51AM

Accused rapist Andre Holmes has been locked up in the Cook County Jail for more than a decade — and he is still waiting to go to trial.

Holmes, 48, is accused of raping a female high-school acquaintance in 2002.

He is one of 40 inmates who have been held in the jail for more than five years, almost a third more than the number a decade ago. Those figures suggest the wheels of justice continue to grind slowly in Cook County’s criminal courts.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, both for the victim and the accused,” said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group. “We haven’t been able to solve this problem. It’s time for Cook County to bring in an independent group outside of Illinois to look at this problem.”

Holmes is a poster boy for the issue.

Of the nearly 10,000 inmates in the Cook County Jail, he’s been waiting the longest for trial.

On Dec. 28, 2002, Holmes allegedly choked and raped a woman in her parked Ford Expedition after she rejected his advances. Then he drove her to his father’s house and announced they were planning to marry, prosecutors said.

She reported the alleged attack to police and was taken to a hospital where authorities recovered Holmes’ DNA, and an exam found evidence of a rape, prosecutors said.

Holmes was charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault and ordered held on $1 million bond in early 2003.

That year, prosecutors filed a motion to admit Holmes’ two prior sex convictions into evidence. Holmes’ defense attorney opposed the motion in 2005. And after a series of lower-court decisions, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Holmes’ favor in 2008.

Then in early 2009, prosecutors pursued a different strategy: They sought to try Holmes as a “sexually dangerous person,” which would allow them to introduce the evidence of the 2002 arrest and his prior sex crimes.

Holmes’ attorney filed a motion opposing the prosecution request in 2010. But the judge ruled that a jury will determine whether Holmes is a sexually dangerous person.

Prosecutors said they were ready for trial in 2012 and a date was set, but the judge was unavailable, records show. Now the trial is scheduled to begin on June 12.

“We will answer ready,” said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office.

Holmes’ attorney, an assistant Cook County public defender, could not be reached for comment.

Officials in Cook County’s criminal justice system have been grappling with how to reduce pretrial delays for years.

In 2002, then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine’s office said in a memo to Presiding Judge Paul Biebel that complex murder cases, such as those involving multiple defendants, should take no longer than 2½ years to get to trial. Regular first-degree murder cases should reach a disposition in 1½ years, the memo said.

But hundreds of inmates in the jail have waited far longer than two years for their day in court — and many of them are facing charges less serious than rape or murder, according to the Cook County sheriff’s office, which operates the jail.

There are 539 inmates who have been in the jail between two and three years. Another 215 have been in the jail between three and four years. Eighty-four have been in the jail between four and five years — compared to 66 a decade ago. And 40 have been in the jail more than five years, compared to 29 a decade ago, according to mid-April figures.

“Stolen car and drug cases are taking two or three years,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s maddeningly frustrating.”

Those delays are costly: Room and board per inmate is more than $52,000 a year. So the tab is more than $2 million a year just for the inmates who’ve been held in the jail at least five years.

Meanwhile, the average length of stay for inmates has risen from 50 days in 2007 to 57 days last year. The jail population is bursting at the seams. On Friday, the jail housed 9,796 inmates — 646 inmates below capacity.

The differences of opinion on how to deal with pretrial delays and jail crowding were on display last month when Dart, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans appeared on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight.”

“The time we are taking to dispose of cases — we’re not doing very well in Cook County,” Preckwinkle said.

She pointed out that 70 percent of the inmates are waiting for trial on non-violent charges.

Preckwinkle said she’s called on the sheriff to release more of those people on electronic monitoring.

Dart said there’s been a “massive decrease” in the number of defendants that judges have ordered released on electronic monitoring since last year. Now judges are “recommending” release on electronic monitoring, but “that is not a legal order,” he said. “I need a court order, not a recommendation.”

Evans stressed that a federal judge last year gave Dart the authority to release up to 1,500 pretrial detainees from the jail to prevent crowding. Dart responded that he hired two retired judges to review each inmate’s record to see whether they are qualified for electronic monitoring, but many aren’t. On Friday, 755 inmates were on electronic monitoring, compared with more than 1,200 in November.

Preckwinkle suggested judges could release more non-violent people on “reasonable bonds” they could pay. But Evans said “judges make decisions based on bail, not overcrowding.”

When judges set bail, they must consider dozens of factors — including defendants’ criminal backgrounds and whether they will return to court — but not the impact on the jail, Evans said.

In recent weeks, Preckwinkle has met separately with Dart, Evans and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. She offered them staff and money to help identify solutions, said Kristen Mack, a spokeswoman for Preckwinkle. For instance, Preckwinkle offered to pay for “expediters” for Alvarez. They could identify cases that could be disposed of quickly and expedite them through the system.

In his interview with the Sun-Times, Dart said previous studies have provided Cook County with a solution.

In 2005, American University released a study finding “substantial, unexplained variation in the felony case process that points up the wide variation among the individual judges in managing their calendars.” The study called for expanded pretrial release, stronger judicial management of cases and a better case tracking system.

“We need an accountability system, not a nebulous system where some judges are working incredibly hard and others aren’t,” Dart said. “This doesn’t require us to bring in the experts around the world to solve it. The roadmap has been handed to us, but we’re not using it.”

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