Simple Fix Will Save Millions in Jail Costs

Switching to field-testing of drugs would also stop disruption in poor defendants’ lives

 

In New York State, if someone is charged with a crime, the courts have 120 hours to hold a preliminary hearing where they decide if there is probable cause – whether or not they are going to bring the case to trial.   How does Cook County compare? “Every single year there are over 5,000 people that spend an average of 25 days in jail for nonviolent drug possession cases, only to have their cases dismissed in the preliminary hearing for lack of probable cause,” reports Ali Abid of Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.

Not only does this cost the county millions per year, “The human cost is immense.” Abid explains that most people who sit in jail awaiting a preliminary hearing are there because they can’t afford bond, and while they sit there, any stability that they had in their life is eroding while they wait – loss of job and housing are likely outcomes, but also it’s important to consider what happens to their children and other family members. Unlike other types of crimes, there is no felony review, conducted by state’s attorneys, right after arrest to determine whether a felony should be charged. This leaves only a brief bond court hearing, where facts of the case beyond the charge are not examined before a lengthy wait in the jail for their preliminary hearing. “It’s a mockery of justice that the only person who has discretion whether someone spends a month in jail for a drug possession case is the arresting officer. In many cases these 25 days of incarceration can cause years of disruption in people’s lives,” continues Abid. “All for a case that will be dismissed.”

Two years ago Appleseed, the Community Renewal Society, and the Reclaim Campaign tried to stop this long wait time by creating a statute that would limit the number of days an inmate would have to wait before their preliminary hearing. Illinois has one of the longest deadlines in the country for holding preliminary hearings. Other states set a time limit – often 10 or 14 days and stick to it. In this way they limit taxpayer and individual costs of incarceration. Appleseed prepared a policy brief that effectively makes the case for shortening the 30-day window.

As they campaigned to get the bill passed, advocates faced stiff opposition from the State’s Attorney’s Office who claimed they were waiting on police evidence. Apparently, for all drug possession cases coming out of Chicago, Cook County Courts have to wait an average of three weeks to get results back from the State Police lab. This lag time in drug cases is driving the lengthy jail stays, and without faster turnaround of evidence, the cases could not move forward more quickly. The odd thing is, it’s only Chicago – all other jurisdictions in the state field-test their drugs to get evidence to the courts immediately. Also, even in Chicago, most non-drug cases get to their preliminary hearing well below the 25-day average.

This revelation led to negotiations with the States’ Attorneys lobby to refocus the legislation on field-testing. The States Attorneys have assured advocates that if the Chicago police can establish field-testing of drugs, they can bring the cases more quickly and shorten the waiting period for determining probable cause.

Illinois Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), and Representative Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) are cooperating to pass this nuts and bolts solution that will benefit families and save money. The legislation will create a field-testing pilot program for Chicago Police. “Field testing would protect the innocent and save Cook County a ton of money,” said Harmon. “We owe it to justice and the taxpayers to see if this program, which is already used in most of the rest of the state, can work here.”

Both have introduced bills in their respective houses that have passed out of committee unanimously and are awaiting a final vote. Referencing the broad support for this bill, Representative Zalewski is optimistic that he will call it for a vote soon. “This legislation will help shorten that wait and hopefully do its part to ease our severe overcrowding in our jail. I applaud Senator Don Harmon, the Community Renewal Society, the Cook County State’s Attorney and the Chicago Police Department for collaborating on this important initiative.”

Appleseed’s Ali Abid believes that the pilot program will be so effective that it will solve the problem as soon as it is implemented. “After everyone sees how effective field testing is, I expect it will quickly be applied system wide.”

While advocates and legislators are making moves to establish field-testing in Chicago, the collective impact of 125,000 days of superfluous incarceration weighs heavy on our communities and county resources. We urge legislators to get to it, and advocates to continue identifying common sense solutions that reduce unnecessary jail time.  Status for SB720 can be found here.  Status of HB356 can be found here.

 

Cory Muldoon is a strategic consultant and a contributor to Cook County Justice Watch.

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