Fittest loser
Article updated: 10/10/2013 7:57 PM

Preckwinkle: Other county leaders resist ideas to reduce jail costs

Toni Preckwinkle

Toni Preckwinkle

 
Tom Dart

Tom Dart

 
Timothy Evans

Timothy Evans

 
Anita Alvarez

Anita Alvarez

 
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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says her efforts to reduce the county's jail population and save taxpayers millions of dollars a year are being thwarted by the county's elected public safety leaders.

During a 2014 budget presentation, Preckwinkle said that her incarceration reduction proposals to Sheriff Tom Dart, Chief Judge Timothy Evans and State's Attorney Anita Alvarez have either met resistance or been ignored. She is seeking the help of the Illinois Supreme Court now to help implement her plans.

"It's very expensive to keep people in jail," she said. "Basically every actor, in my view, in the system could do more to ensure that justice is dispensed more fairly and expeditiously. And that nonviolent offenders that are no risk to themselves or the community await trial in the community where they can go to work to support their families or go to school, rather than be in our jail."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride has agreed to "convene a primary stakeholders meeting of Cook County officials with the full court."

Preckwinkle's $3.2 billion proposed budget was introduced Thursday. In it, various county departments and other elected countywide officeholders would receive a combined $34.1 million increase in allocations over 2013. Preckwinkle said no new taxes or fees would be instituted.

While Preckwinkle said reducing the jail population is mainly about meting out justice fairly, she acknowledged a significant reduction would have long-term cost benefits.

Preckwinkle said it costs $143 a day to house someone at the county jail. She said Dart has the authority to release up to 1,500 nonviolent inmates and outfit them with electronic monitoring devices. That could save more than $200,000 a day.

"He has chosen not to do that," she said.

Dart's budget is expected to increase nearly $15 million next year to $462.5 million, far and away the largest amount for any single county officeholder.

Officials in his office said Dart is committed to electronic monitoring and the sheriff is "on the same page as the president."

Sheriff's spokesman Ben Breit said Dart has the power only to recommend electronic monitoring and it is up to two retired judges to decide the fate of the inmate. Breit said some inmates who are accused of nonviolent offenses might have been convicted in the past of violent offenses and those retired judges may take that into account.

On Wednesday evening, Breit reported that the county's jails were housing 9,943 inmates. Another 1,516 people were out of jail but being electronically monitored.

There were 323 others housed at other jails "because we ran out of space," Breit said. Another 1,366 people were also under the watch of the sheriff's office through various boot camp, day-reporting or pre-release programs, he said.

Calls to Evans and Alvarez were not returned.

Preckwinkle's proposed budget for the chief judge is the next highest at $140.6 million, though Evans is requesting nearly $147 million. This year's appropriation was $136 million.

Evans and Preckwinkle have frequently butted heads at budget time since Preckwinkle took office in 2010.

Preckwinkle said her office has repeatedly requested data from Evans' office on judges' caseloads but never received any details.

She believes slow-moving courts and high bond amounts set by the county's judges are adding to the jail population, because defendants have a harder time making bail.

"There are a variety of ways in which he is not willing to cooperate," she said of Evans. "You should ask him why he doesn't."

In a 2011 letter to Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, Evans asks the clerk to issue detailed caseload data to Preckwinkle "in a timely manner."

Pushback from Evans initiated her plea to the Illinois Supreme Court for assistance, Preckwinkle said.

"There is a sense that not everybody on the bench works hard," she said.

Preckwinkle recently announced plans to strip judges of taxpayer-funded health insurance coverage that could save as much $4 million a year.

Alvarez and Preckwinkle also can't agree on a budget for the state's attorney's office for next year. The sides are more than $2 million apart.

Preckwinkle is recommending $93.2 million and Alvarez is seeking $95.3 million. The office's 2013 budget allocation was $91.6 million, according to county reports.

Preckwinkle said she has asked Alvarez to create a special unit to expedite bond hearings and pretrial activities for certain nonviolent cases. While Alvarez agreed to staff the unit with nine lawyers and five aides, Preckwinkle said the state's attorney was resistant to an evaluation process for the unit and talks have stalled.

Preckwinkle's budget director, Andrea Gibson, said the evaluation process is common for all county programs, especially new endeavors.

"We want to make sure what we're investing in will actually have results," she said.

Preckwinkle was also critical of the way Alvarez's office was handling bond hearings, claiming high bond requests were contributing to jail overpopulation.

"The state's attorney could ask for reasonable bonds at bond hearings," Preckwinkle said. "And they could not object to every effort to reduce bond."

Some of the savings of reducing the jail population will be offset by Preckwinkle's movement to start housing 17-year-olds charged with felonies at the county's juvenile detention center rather than the adult jail, where they are currently housed. Juvenile detainees cost the county almost seven times what an adult inmate does because of educational and social work requirements, county officials said.

The policy shift is expected to increase the juvenile detention population by as much as 100, Gibson said.

The county board is expected to approve the budget sometime in early November.

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