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Preckwinkle, Dart sound alarms on jail overcrowding

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle Wednesday called on judges to release more people on electronic monitoring to help deal with overcrowding at Cook County Jail. According to Preckwinkle, as of Monday there were 10,008 people in the jail, which has a capacity of 10,150.

The jail population typically grows by a few thousand going into the summer, and Preckwinkle says allowing people accused of crimes to await trial from home could curb the problem.

“It’s a waste of public resources to put more money into jail beds,” said Preckwinkle, noting that 70 percent of the people awaiting trial in Cook County are charged with nonviolent offenses.

Speaking on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift Wednesday, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart echoed the sentiment, noting that electronic monitoring costs about a fifth of the $150 a day it costs to house someone at the jail.

“They’re sitting in their house, they’re feeding themselves, they’re going back and forth to court dates by themselves, they’re going to work, they’re taking care of their families, all of the above, as opposed to sitting in jail where we’re paying for everything,” Dart said. “My overtime budget is exploding right now.”

Both Preckwinkle and Dart said they’re not sure why the number of people on electronic monitoring has recently dropped, and Preckwinkle also called on the Sheriff himself to use his power to release people.

Dart said he’s already doing everything he can, adding that bond hearing judges should be the ones taking action.

“The only people I was not putting out [on electronic monitoring] were people that didn’t have a house to go to,” Dart said. “There’s no one that has a more vested interest in making sure that the electronic monitoring is a robust system than me.”

But a statement by Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans hit the ball straight back into Dart’s court, pointing to a federal court order that gives Dart the power to release people.

"According to Illinois law, the purpose of a bail hearing is for a judge to decide how best to ensure the return of the defendant to court and to protect public safety,” Evans wrote. “The purpose of a bail hearing is not to reduce the jail population.”

Neither Dart nor Preckwinkle suggested what measures they will take if the jail population isn’t somehow curbed by summer.

“Historically the system just wouldn’t handle it,” Dart said. “We’d just start putting people on the floors, we’d have three people in a two-person room, we’d have the living units ... literally covered with mattresses all over the place.”

Preckwinkle said overcrowding will be number one on the agenda at a meeting of public safety officials Friday.

Follow Lewis Wallace on Twitter @LewisPants.

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