Preckwinkle takes on detention

It seems like there's a new sheriff in town.

But no, it's the president—Cook County board president Tony Preckwinkle. President Preckwinkle is poised to seize a job that's done by the man who wears the county sheriff's star. The job: putting jail detainees on electronic monitoring.

Why Preckwinkle wants the job is pretty clear: She believes she can help cut overcrowding at Cook County Jail. But while her motive can be divined, it's less clear whether she'll succeed.

In Cook County, it is judges who largely decide what to do with arrestees awaiting trial. Judges can send arrestees to Cook County Jail, or put them on electronic monitoring (EM) at home. But Cook County sheriff Tom Dart's office also has the power to put jail inmates on EM—a power that Preckwinkle wants to assume.

To learn how we got here, it helps to know that Cook County Jail has, over many years, routinely battled a bulging inmate population. Jail inmates sued the county over jail congestion decades ago—resulting in a 1982 consent decree that forced the county to address overcrowding under a federal monitor's watchful eye.

Additionally, the jail has been the subject of a lawsuit by the U.S. Dept. of Justice since 2010. The federal lawsuit charges that Cook County provides "inadequate" and "unconstitutional" levels of medical care, fire safety, and protection of prisoners from assault—and says that county officials "have repeatedly and consistently disregarded known or serious risks of harm to [jail] inmates."

It's a big challenge because Cook County Jail's a big place—"the country's largest single-site jail," according to the county. Officials estimate its present capacity—which fluctuates due to ongoing repair and construction—at about 11,000 inmates.

According to recent statistics, the jail currently houses about 8,500 inmates. But officials expect that number to jump when summer brings more arrests.

The main function of "County" (as it's known by jail veterans) is to hold people after they're arrested and before they go to trial. But they don't all end up staying there.

Generally, after police arrest someone in Cook County for a local or state law violation that can be prosecuted in court, the arrestee appears before a county judge. That judge decides whether there's enough evidence to put the arrestee on trial. If there is, the judge has several options: set a "bond," or dollar amount needed to bail the person out of Cook County Jail before trial; put them in jail without bond (i.e., no chance of bail) to await trial; or release them, with no bond required, on their own recognizance.

Additionally, if an arrestee is accused of a non-violent offense, a judge can send them home wearing an EM ankle bracelet. This diverts the arrestee from jail, so they don't add to the jail's chronic overcrowding.

In the past, judges have routinely chosen the EM option when possible—until about August of 2012, according to Cara Smith, executive director of the Cook County Dept. of Corrections (DOC). (The DOC, which reports to the sheriff, operates Cook County Jail.)

At that point, Smith said, "inexplicably, the judges stopped ordering people to electronic monitoring. Like, one day, our numbers just sort of went to zero."

That, said Smith, "created an almost immediate population crisis-slash-pressure within our facility."

What caused county judges to curtail EM? The sheriff's office "never got an answer," Smith said.

We posed the question to the office of the chief judge of Cook County circuit court, Timothy Evans, which didn't respond.

However, Evans has said publicly that he had his judges go from ordering EM to merely "recommending" EM because Sheriff Dart "wasn't following the orders"—i.e., Dart was keeping detainees in jail after judges had ordered them onto EM.

In a spirited debate aired last year on WTTW's Chicago Tonight, Evans said that, when his judges ordered arrestees to home monitoring, 50 percent of the time Dart's jail staff didn't put them there. Dart countered that the percentage was closer to 10 percent—and that's because the arrestees didn't have a proper home at which to be monitored, or they didn't want to leave the jail.

But even before the unofficial moratorium on EM, the jail sometimes got crowded because—according a federal court in 2011—of "the unexplained reluctance of state judges in Cook County to set affordable terms for bail." In other words, judges set bonds higher than arrestees could afford—and higher than set by courts in other areas—thereby sending a surfeit of arrestees to the jail, where they'd wait weeks or months for their day in court. (The office of Judge Evans didn't answer a request for comment.)

In response to that particular overcrowding spike, in mid-2011 federal judges gave the county sheriff an unprecedented power: the ability to shift prisoners from the jail to home-based EM.

The court gave the sheriff strict criteria for deciding which kinds of inmates should not go on EM. Inmates not qualified for EM were those accused of violent and sexual offenses, including robbery, arson, kidnapping, carjacking, and a couple dozen others. The court also capped the number of non-judicial EM releases at 1,500.

Despite this power, Dart has released relatively few detainees to EM: Of the 1,700-plus people on EM as of mid-February, less than eight percent were put there by the sheriff.

The sheriff's office maintains that it's the job of county judges, not the sheriff, to decide who gets into and out of jail. From that standpoint, said the DOC's Smith, the federal court's action in giving the sheriff EM power is "very odd."

"It relieves the judges who bear the responsibility," Smith said, and "puts the sheriff's office in an appellate court sort of role . . . which is very awkward."

So it surprised many observers when, last year, county board president Preckwinkle said she wanted the federally conferred, non-judicial EM power transferred from the sheriff to the president's office. And, last January, the county board gave her the go-ahead to make such a request—with Dart's cooperation—to the federal court.

The president's office will file the request with the federal court some time this month, officials said.

Why is Preckwinkle taking on this job? It's partly political and partly a policy matter, said a county official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

If the sheriff tries to put more prisoners on EM by loosening the criteria, said the official, he runs the risk of releasing someone who'll turn around and shoot, rob, or rape a hapless citizen. Therefore, the official said, it's political dynamite: No one wants responsibility for "the next Willie Horton."

So is Dart reluctant to release more prisoners due to the potential political backlash? "Not only that, he's not a jurist," the official said.

"[Dart] can decide which cell blocks prisoners should be in, or what kinds of meals they get," the official said. "Those are the sorts of decisions he should be making." So, from a policy standpoint, it doesn't make sense for the sheriff to control EM.

Arguably, it doesn't make any more sense for Preckwinkle. But, the official said, "she's taking it out of frustration."

"You have an elected official insisting on taking the reins of a horse that no one wants to ride," the official said. "It's pretty remarkable."

Given the federal court's strict criteria by which non-judges can put jail detainees on EM, what would Preckwinkle do differently from Dart?

"We haven't gotten to that point yet," said Julia Stratton, whom Preckwinkle hired in 2011 to help reform the county's criminal justice system.

"There hasn't been a real discussion about what's not working" with the current arrangement, Stratton said, "as much as why it could be beneficial for [EM] to be in the president's office."

To help figure out ways to grow the number of EM placements, Stratton said, the president has retained retired judge Warren Wolfson, a jurist with a resume: He's served on both the Cook County Circuit Court and the Illinois Appellate Court. And he's taught at the Chicago-Kent, DePaul, and University of Chicago laws schools.

If Preckwinkle gets the federal court to let her control EM placements, how will she know when she's achieved something akin to success?

Stratton said that the federal court has ruled that the county can release as many as 1,500 detainees to EM. Currently, such releases number less than 150.

Success, she said, would be "to increase that number to close to—if not to—that 1,500."