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It’s time to finally stop Cook County Jail’s population growth

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Updated: October 19, 2013 6:53PM

Cook County officials have been talking — and talking and talking — about the dire need to lower the County Jail’s population, but the number of inmates behind bars just keeps growing.

The interlocking web of policies that drives up inmate numbers is out of control. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was right last week to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to assign a judge who is not from Cook County to clear the backlog of criminal cases. She also has asked the court to establish a reform commission headed by a member of the Supreme Court, another sensible idea.

It’s easy for various officials — as they focus on their own jobs — to add to the number of people sitting behind bars. Police can decide to make more arrests in a wider variety of cases. The state’s attorney’s office can ask for high bonds or object to electronic monitoring. Cases can stack up if judges don’t efficiently move them through the system. If legislators don’t fund mental-health and drug-abuse programs, the jail becomes the default destination for people who could instead be getting treatment.

When all those officials operate in their own silos without regard to what happens elsewhere in the system, jail overcrowding is the result. And that’s what’s happening. Despite Preckwinkle’s long campaign to reduce the population in America’s largest jail, it keeps going up. If things don’t change, at some point a federal court will order county taxpayers to dig deeply into their pockets for additional jail facilities. The jail already is operating under a federal consent decree from an old legal battle over crowding and other issues.

In the last six years, Preckwinkle says, the average number of days inmates spent in jail awaiting trial has increased to the point that more than 300 Cook County Jail inmates have waited at least five years to resolve their cases, costing taxpayers $78.2 million. On Tuesday, the jail population was 10,267 — close to capacity — and that’s not counting inmates shipped to other jails and those on electronic home monitoring, which brought the total to 13,404. The jail’s mental health facility, Cermak Health Services, is over capacity.

Yet Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy are pushing for new mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes. Their motivation is to fight gun crime, but tougher sentences also would lead directly to more motions to suppress and more demands for trials — and more people camped out at the County Jail awaiting trial.

Prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges also could do a better job of identifying low-risk suspects who can safely be freed on recognizance bonds as they await trial. Prosecutors often ask for high bonds, and judges often grant them, because no one wants to free a suspect who goes right out and commits a serious crime. To do a better job of risk assessment, the county is adding 18 people to its pretrial services staff, and the much-criticized video bond court has been eliminated, but more needs to be done.

The easiest bottleneck to deal with may be the number of judges who don’t move cases through the system efficiently. To address that, Preckwinkle has called on Chief Judge Timothy Evans to make public data from tracking software that shows how judges in the system perform. Evans, who has said judges are unfairly catching heat for insufficient resources in the system, has refused to do so, but he should. That’s the most basic kind of public information, gathered on the public’s dime, and you — the public — have every right to see it. Although many judges are hard workers, some lawyers complain about a culture of lethargy and indolence in numerous courtrooms. The tracking data would help identify those courtrooms. Although every judge’s case load is different, no backlog should be due to a leisurely attitude on the bench.

The length of stay in the jail, an indicator of how fast judges are getting cases through the system, went up 19 percent from 2007 to 2012, which translates to 1,897 more inmates in the jail each day. Doing a better job of handling cases would reduce the number of days people, some of whom are innocent, spend in jail, and would save taxpayers real money.

Every official involved in the county’s criminal justice system should be working to make that happen.

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