Cook County’s jailed population has shrunk by more than half over the past decade, but the massive reduction hasn’t led to big savings for taxpayers or a major boost in funding for crime prevention, a WBEZ analysis of county budget records has found.
Jail detainee numbers last month averaged 4,675, a 58% drop since the population peaked at 11,248 in September 2013. But inflation-adjusted operating expenditures for the jail and the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program fell just 18% from 2013 to 2023. The funds spent last fiscal year, which ended Nov. 30, totaled more than $412 million.
In response, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who oversees the jail, says the costs are largely driven by factors outside his control, such as union contracts he does not negotiate.
Still, corrections spending is “not aligned” with the jail population drop, said Joe Ferguson, president of the nonprofit Civic Federation, a Chicago-area government budget watchdog.
“It’s very important in the next budgeting cycle that the sheriff is more forthcoming about what the actual operational model is and that the County Board is more rigorous in its scrutinization of that budget so that we all can understand that this money is being well spent,” said Ferguson, a former longtime city of Chicago inspector general.
Some advocates for reducing the jail population — including County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — have suggested shifting funds from Dart’s office to address court backlogs and “root causes” of crime ranging from drug addiction to a shortage of low-income housing.
“Over the last 10 years, we have worked collaboratively with our system stakeholders and partners to safely reduce overuse of the jail” but corrections budgets “have not yet responded to reduced use,” Preckwinkle said in a statement responding to WBEZ’s findings.
Last year, the sheriff’s corrections departments, which run the jail and electronic monitoring, spent more than $130 a day per person, up from an inflation-adjusted $94 in 2013.
The increase has come despite a shift toward electronic monitoring, which costs 20% of jail detention, according to WBEZ’s analysis.
A statement from Dart’s office says the savings from cutting the jail population are limited by two factors.
First, although the sheriff has trimmed nearly 1,000 staff positions over the past decade, the County Board has approved “significant increases in compensation” for remaining employees, “a process over which the sheriff’s office has no say,” the statement said. Pay hikes for most employees are negotiated between Preckwinkle’s office and unions.
But a WBEZ analysis of county payroll data shows salary increases have remained roughly in line with inflation. In March 2013, corrections employees averaged $62,312 a year. Last November, they averaged $83,743, around $2,000 more than if pegged to inflation throughout that decade. Pay hikes for correctional officers, comprising nearly three-quarters of those employees, were just $800 more than inflation.
The second factor, according to Dart’s office, is an increasing percentage of detainees with drug addictions or mental illnesses that require more staffing.
“The sheriff’s office has worked extraordinarily hard to cut costs wherever possible while still ensuring the safety of individuals ordered into custody and providing programming and treatment options to address mental health needs and substance use disorders,” the statement from Dart’s office said.
Dart’s office declined a WBEZ interview.
In October, Dart took questions for two hours from Cook County Board commissioners during the sheriff’s annual budget hearing. None asked about the jail expenses.
Instead they listened as Dart complained that the end of cash bail had reduced the time for corrections employees to work with detainees addicted to opioids.
“All the treatment is hindered by the fact a lot of these folks are just with me for this little window of time,” Dart said.
But Preckwinkle’s office said some of the money the sheriff is using on the shrunken jail population would be more effective elsewhere.
“To achieve sustainable, long-term reductions in crime and violence and reduce reliance on our criminal legal system, we have to invest in communities that have suffered historic disinvestment and over-incarceration and center community-based rather than carceral systems,” the president’s statement said.
Preckwinkle’s office said some COVID-19 relief funds are paying for a study of the county’s criminal justice budgets “to identify and shift funding from duplicative or unnecessary areas, or from initiatives that do not match the core mission of a particular agency, into more effective and mission-aligned investments.”
“The sheriff took steps to reduce headcount last year,” the statement continued, “and we are committed to working with his office to identify future cost savings.”