Cook County jail program is rescuing dogs and detainees. And now it’s expanding

A corrections officer could be heard shouting commands Thursday morning in a concrete yard of Division 19 at the Cook County jail.

But the detainees weren’t being bossed around. Instead, they were receiving directions as they trained a half-dozen dogs to heel, sit, stay and lie down.

The scene Thursday was the jail’s Tails of Redemption program in action. Since launching in 2018, the program has helped 167 unwanted pooches become suitable for new homes, and taught the detainees who train them about compassion, patience and discipline.

Cook County jail detainees work with dogs Thursday as part of the jail's Tails of Redemption program. Courtesy of Cook County Sheriff

“This program is a win for everyone,” Sheriff Tom Dart said. “The dogs find good homes, who may otherwise still be in a shelter, or, worse yet, euthanized, and the men in the program learn new skills as well as see the positive impact they are capable of making.”

And now, the program Dart describes as “life-changing” for detainees is expanding to train therapy dogs. Therapy dogs have been used in the jail, and Dart has a long list of hospitals, law-enforcement agencies and other organizations eager to obtain them.

“We said, ‘Let’s be an asset to people,’” Dart said of the decision to grow Tails of Redemption.

The expansion also means a relocation of the program to the jail’s Mental Health Transition Center. That will allow detainees to work with 22, more than twice as many as at its previous location. The dogs stay in a kennel, with the detainees in a room across the hall. There’s also a fenced-in space outside where the dogs can run around off-leash.

Among the detainees taking part Thursday was Pedro Barrera of Carpentersville, who’s in custody on a charge he violated probation.

“It’s been amazing,” he said, adding that working with dogs helps him deal with anxiety and depression.

  Detainees in the Cook County jail's Tails of Redemption program train dogs Thursday. The dogs come from several shelters, and once they pass obedience tests they are adopted. Susan Sarkauskas/

“It just brings it down (because of) the love they give you,” added Barrera, who owns two dogs at home.

Barrera said he has been in the program about six months, and helped train about 20 dogs. How long dogs stay depends on how quickly they learn.

Dogs in the program range from Shih Tzus to pit bulls to a Rottweiler named Rocky.

“People see this giant dog with a big head, but he’s got the same size heart,” Officer Jerry Roman said of Rocky.

The new home for the Cook County jail's Tails of Redemption program offers space for more dogs and the detainees who train them. Courtesy of Cook County Sheriff

About 10 detainees are participating in the program, all from minimum or medium-security divisions. The dogs come from shelters in Chicago, Cicero and Tinley Park — including dogs displaced by a fire at a Tinley Park shelter earlier this year.

  A display at the Cook County jail shows photos of dogs that have graduated from the Tails of Redemption program. Susan Sarkauskas/

Many of the supplies and services needed for the dogs have been donated. If you are interested in adopting the dogs, or donating to the program, visit the Tails of Redemption webpage at

Supreme reversal

In a case involving a Hampshire man, the Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a Kane County judge who declared that a state law restricting where convicted sex offenders can live is unconstitutional.

Martin Kopf, 55, challenged the law in November 2019, about a year after he was told he’d have to leave the Hampshire home he and his wife had moved into just three months earlier because it sat within 500 feet of a home-based day care center.

Before purchasing the property, records show, the Kopfs were told by Illinois State Police and the Hampshire Police Department that it complied with his residency restrictions.

According to court documents, Kopf pleaded guilty in 2003 to a charge of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving a 15-year-old boy and was sentenced to three years’ probation, which he successfully completed. He has not committed any criminal offenses in the two decades since, Kopf told justices during arguments before the court last fall.

However, because he was convicted of a sex crime involving a minor, Kopf must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life and cannot live within 500 feet of a park, school, day care center or facility providing programs or services exclusively for anyone under 18 years old.

In June 2021, Kane County Judge Kevin Busch declared the living restrictions an unconstitutional violation of Kopf’s due process and equal protection rights, and barred authorities from enforcing it. The law, he ruled, is “actually irrational” because it allows sex offenders to live next to a family of 10 children, but not a home that takes in two children for day care.

The Kane County state’s attorney, Illinois attorney general and Illinois State Police appealed and, on Thursday, the state’s highest court sided with them.

In their 7-0 decision, justices rejected the lower court’s finding that the day care restriction is irrational.

“The legislature has a legitimate interest in protecting children from neighboring child sex offenders and sexual predators,” Justice David Overstreet wrote. “The Residency Restriction bears a reasonable relationship to furthering the state’s public interest in protecting children by creating a buffer between a child day care home and the home of a child sex offender to protect children from the harm for which child sex offenders have been convicted.”

However, the court left a sliver of hope for Kopf — ruling that he could still return to a Kane County courtroom to argue that the restrictions are unconstitutional as applied only to his case.

“We remand the cause for a hearing to consider the plaintiff’s particular facts and circumstances in lodging this as-applied challenge,” Overstreet wrote.

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