by Mary C. Piemonte
Although there is growing attention to the large number of Americans confined in state and federal prisons nationally, much less attention has been paid to local jails.
A large percentage of the inmate population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees are in jail for nonviolent offenses such as traffic, property, drug or public order violations.
And low-income individuals and communities of color across the nation disproportionately experience the negative consequences of incarceration, according to Cook County public officials in the criminal justice system.
However, Cook County was one of 20 jurisdictions from 45 states selected on May 27, 2015, to receive a $150,000 planning grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “to reduce the number of low level nonviolent offenders incarcerated in the Cook County Jail.”
Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans, whose office led the grant application process, stated in a press release posted on his website that he and other top criminal justice stakeholders – such as the state’s attorney, the public defender, the sheriff, the circuit court clerk and the county board president – have worked cooperatively and collaboratively, in the past two years “on reforms that have led to an increase in the number of people who can be safely released while awaiting trial, and to many efficiencies in court processes.”
He added that the awarding of the MacArthur grant “is key to those efforts, because it marks the first time that all the stakeholders have joined forces to obtain funding to support our mission to implement system-wide change.”
“We are delighted at being selected for participation in the Safety and Justice Challenge because it comes at an important juncture in our efforts to improve access to justice here in Cook County,” he said.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stated that over the past two years, “with the commitment of all of the actors in our criminal justice system and the support of the State Supreme Court,” there has been a “substantial reduction in the population of the Cook County jail.”
Preckwinkle added that MacArthur Foundation grant will help the stakeholders continue their efforts “to create the long-term, systemic change needed to protect residents from destructive and unnecessary detention while also maintaining public safety.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez stated in the press release that they were “pleased that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized the work that has been initiated in Cook County to responsibly reduce jail crowding.”
And she added that with the support of the grant, her office looks forward to continued collaboration with the other criminal justice stakeholders “to identify and implement strategies to reduce jail detention that will reflect the needs of the community in safe, systematic and sustainable ways.”
Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown said, she “strongly” believes that criminal justice should be restorative and not just punitive, and the grant will assist with those efforts.
“I am heartened by the MacArthur Foundation’s investment into creating a more recuperative criminal justice system that will focus on reducing incarceration, while aiding individuals to be law-abiding and productive members of society. I am passionate about addressing the disproportionate confinement of minorities, low-income and mentally ill individuals, particularly, and my Office is eager to work diligently on the ‘Safety and Justice Challenge’ with the other criminal justice system stakeholders of Cook County, in a collective effort to effect a changed justice system that will benefit all citizens,” Brown stated.
According to Public Defender of Cook County Amy P. Campanelli’s, statement, her office “will happily collaborate with the other criminal justice stakeholders to gain access to treatment for our non-violent clients, especially those suffering from mental health issues,” because of the grant assistance.
“Community-based diversion and treatment programs should always be explored as a viable option to incarceration. While we cannot forget that all persons are presumed innocent, it is imperative that our non-violent clients receive reasonable bonds so they can be released, continue working and living productively, support their families, and obtain treatment while awaiting trial,” Campanelli said.
Sheriff Tom Dart stated that he looks forward to working with the other stakeholders “to refocus the Cook County Dept. of Corrections on the serious offenders who need to be here awaiting trial – and away from the non-violent, mentally ill people committing crimes of survival and spending inordinate amounts of time here because the system has not been functioning for them.”
The Cook County criminal justice stakeholders proposed to use the planning grant “to identify the key data and decision points that influence these outcomes, and develop a collaborative response“ according to the press release.
With the grant assistance, Julia Stasch, President of the MacArthur Foundation hopes the Cook County “local efforts will model effective and safe alternatives to the incarceration status quo for the rest of the country.”
“Nearly 200 diverse jurisdictions responded to our challenge, reflecting nationwide interest in reducing over-incarceration…Each of the sites selected has demonstrated the motivation, collaboration, and commitment needed to make real change in their local justice systems,” Stasch added.
Recent collaborative efforts by the Chief Judge, the State’s Attorney, the Public Defender, the Sheriff, the Circuit Court Clerk, and the County Board President “have helped to reduce the jail population to its lowest point since 1991, while maintaining public safety. These include increased use of electronic monitoring and pretrial supervision, deferral from prosecution programs, and courts that offer alternatives to incarceration” according to the press release.
And it added that “the stakeholders recognize that significant challenges remain, such as “the disproportionate incarceration of people of color; recent increases in length of stay in the Cook County Department of Corrections; and continued high levels of parole and probation violations and new arrests.”