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updated: 5/27/2015 3:29 PM

MacArthur Foundation awards Cook County grant to reduce jail population

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Cook County is among 20 jurisdictions that will receive a $150,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to develop ways to reduce the number of nonviolent, low-level offenders incarcerated at Cook County Jail.

The grant is part of the foundation's $75 million safety and justice challenge, which supports innovations within the criminal justice system. Cook County was among 200 applicants from 45 states.

County officials applauded Wednesday's announcement, which reflects efforts by representatives from the Cook County circuit court, sheriff's department, public defender, state's attorney and other departments to reform Cook County's criminal justice system.

"For the past two years, the criminal justice stakeholders in Cook County have worked cooperatively and collaboratively on reforms that have led to an increase in the number of people who can be safely released while awaiting trial and to many efficiencies in court processes," said Chief Cook County circuit court Judge Timothy C. Evans in a prepared statement. "The awarding of the MacArthur grant is key to those efforts."

The jail population is the lowest it has been since 1991, according to county officials, who say the decline has resulted from the use of electronic monitoring, deferred prosecution programs and other alternatives.

Cook County Public Defender Amy P. Campanelli cited diversion and treatment programs as "a viable alternative to incarceration."

"We will happily collaborate with the other criminal justice stakeholders to gain access to treatment for our nonviolent clients, especially those suffering from mental health issues," said Campanelli in a prepared statement. "While we cannot forget that all persons are presumed innocent, it is imperative that our nonviolent clients receive reasonable bonds so they can be released, continue working and living productively, support their families, and obtain treatment while awaiting trial."

Officials recognize that some challenges are ongoing, including the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, lengthy jail sentences along with numerous parole and probation violations.

Sheriff Tom Dart says the grant offers the Cook County Department of Corrections a way to focus on "serious offenders who need to be here awaiting trial and away from the nonviolent, mentally ill people committing crimes of survival and spending inordinate amounts of time here because the system has not been functioning for them."

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