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Program to Help Overcrowding at Jail Scaled Back

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Program to Help Overcrowding at Jail Scaled Back

An electronic monitoring bracelet used to track paroled inmates. (AP/Jeff Chiu)

Federal prosecutors are accusing Cook County of running a jail that’s so unsafe and unsanitary, it violates the civil rights of people waiting for trial there. The U.S. Department of Justice led a year-and-a-half long investigation of the jail. Prosecutors say a lot of the problems stem from understaffing and overcrowding. But a program that many experts say could help reduce overcrowding is actually being scaled down.

At a press conference last week, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald outlined some harsh findings: Abuse of inmates, lack of adequate health care, and a dilapidated building.

FITZGERALD: There also are conditions in the jail due to overcrowding and other conditions that result in danger to the inmates from the risk of violence from other inmates and just as importantly, more importantly, danger to the correction officers from the overcrowding and the understaffing.

Fitzgerald’s 98-page report barely mentions overcrowding, but when it does, it’s pretty rough. The investigation found that during the weeks when the Cook County Jail was really crowded, there were more fights, more officers using force, and more homemade weapons confiscated. And dangerous crowding isn’t anything new.

Since the 1980s, Cook County Jail has been under a consent decree; essentially, oversight from the federal court. That’s an outcome of a case over inmates living in crowded cells.

Locke Bowman is an attorney for some of those inmates. He and others say there’s a way to keep the jail’s population in check.

BOWMAN: What is clear is that electronic monitoring has been the failsafe that has been used to keep overcrowding at least under control.

You may be most familiar with electronic monitoring as that ankle bracelet some people have to wear when they’re out on bond or confined to home. It’s used in other ways, too, like keeping tabs on sex offenders. And sometimes people can be on a monitor and still be allowed to go to work. Bowman says however it’s used, electronic monitoring costs less than keeping a person in jail, in addition to keeping people out. But lately there’s been a change.

BOWMAN: You know, it’s a very strange development.

As a part of the federal court’s oversight, an independent group, the John Howard Association, has been keeping a close eye on how many are jailed. So far this year, the population is around 9,200. That’s down from more than 11,000 six years ago. But the report also shows at the beginning of 2006, around 1,500 people were assigned to electronic monitoring on any given day. But in just two and a half years, that number’s dropped to its lowest point this past June to fewer 400 people released on monitors.

BOWMAN: Right now, if it were to be used at the same levels it had been used at historically, we would have eliminated overcrowding and could be confident of a certain margin of safety.

DART: The reality of it is, with the limited amount of information I have I cannot in good faith look at people of this county and say to them, ‘I feel comfortable letting this person out.’ I don’t.

Tom Dart took over as Cook County sheriff in late 2006. Both the jail and decisions about who goes on an electronic monitor fall under him. Despite the declining numbers, Dart’s budget for electronic monitoring hasn’t changed much over the past couple years. The thing is, Dart says there’s a lot of risk releasing someone awaiting trial on just a monitor. So he says the decision should land squarely at the judges’ bench.

DART: I’m probably the person in the judicial chain there that has the least amount of information. The judge has the most, the state’s attorney, the public defender have the next level of information and I have the absolute least amount of information.

Across the country, and in other major cities like New York and Los Angeles, judges typically decide who gets out on a monitor. But the federal court made the Cook County’s sheriff responsible and it’ll probably stay that way until jail conditions improve and federal oversight is lifted. And here’s where a bit of a Catch-22 comes in. Many say conditions won’t improve until overcrowding is dealt with. Dart says the problem’s bigger.

DART: We have an incredibly dysfunctional system set up right now that screams for the judiciary to be involved.

No judges would comment for this story. Cook County’s Chief Judge Tim Evans did not respond to repeated calls for an interview.

As for attorney Locke Bowman, he says in a perfect world, judges would decide the electronic monitor question. But he says that’s no excuse for Dart to scrap the program.

BOWMAN: The bottom line is the judges are not parties to this consent decree. The sheriff is.

In the meantime, the John Howard Association is scheduled to turn in a new report soon to the federal judge overseeing the jail. The report will include some recommendations about how the county can clean up the jail.

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