Sheriff Dart Fears Cook County Jail Will Be Packed By Summer

By Chuck Sudo in News on Mar 19, 2013 7:40PM

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Photo credit: Gary Eckstein

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says he fears the size of the county's jail population could become untenable once warm weather arrives and, with it, more arrests.

In an interview with the Sun-Times, Dart said Cook County Jail is currently at 96 percent capacity, with 9,721 inmates. Dart attributes the overload to three events: An increase in arrests; inmates spending longer time in jail as their cases work their way through the court system; and a drop in the number of inmates released on electronic monitoring.

Cook County Jail has a capacity of 10,150 people and Dart said if something isn’t done soon to alleviate the situation “that will become a huge problem for me come June, July and August.” He and Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans have blamed each other for the decrease in electronic monitoring. A renewed push for electronic monitoring for low-level offenses was on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the Cook County Board’s legislative committee.

Dart told the Sun-Times the rise in Chicago’s homicide rate and a crackdown on violent crimes has contributed to the increase in incarcerations. Another contributing factor is the closing of mental health centers across Chicago. Cook County Jail is the largest mental health provider in the state and the chances of recidivism and re-incarceration increases with the closures of other mental health facilities. Dart has been a vocal opponent of mental health facility closures and estimated one-third of the jail’s population suffers from mental illness.

Overcrowding prisons isn’t a problem unique to Cook County. Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to close several correctional facilities, including the supermax Tamms prison, was met with criticism as inmates are now sleeping in cots in prison gymnasiums. Quinn defended his decision to close prisons as a necessary evil to cut rising incarceration costs. The problem here is that prison populations remain the same, if they aren’t increasing.

Angela Caputo, in the latest edition of The Chicago Reporter, reported that Illinois taxpayers are paying billions to house prisoners who hail from a small section of the city. Circuit Court records found over 147,000 prison sentences were meted out between 2000 and 2011 and cost taxpayers $5.3 billion in incarceration costs. Most of those costs were related to crimes in 968 Census blocks; incarceration costs for convictions related to crimes near the intersection of Adams and Cicero in Austin cost taxpayers an estimated $4 million.