In August 2015, the Accelerated Resolution Court Act created a pilot program in Cook County called the “Rocket Docket.” Developed and pushed by Sheriff Tom Dart, the law promised to release certain highly sympathetic prisoners from the Cook County Jail (“CCJ”) earlier than they would otherwise be released by capping their jail stays at 30 days. As originally designed, the Sheriff’s Office was to refer defendants charged with misdemeanor retail theft or criminal trespass to a special court if they remained in the jail longer than 3 days after their monetary bond had been set. (This was meant to ensure anyone with the means to bond out did so on their own.) The pilot program then required the special Rocket Docket court to resolve these low-level, nonviolent cases within 30 days or to release the defendants on their own recognizance or on electronic monitoring (“EM”). Ultimately, no separate court was established and eligible cases currently continue to make their way through the usual misdemeanor courtrooms. Sheriff Dart’s office simply alerts the State’s Attorney’s office, the defendant’s counsel of record, and the Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division (presently Judge Leroy Martin) after determining that a defendant may qualify for the Rocket Docket’s resolve or release requirements.
Sheriff Dart has been outspoken on the need to reduce CCJ’s population and stop jailing people who pose no threat to public safety. The Rocket Docket idea, however, only impacts a very small percentage of CCJ’s population. Dart’s own estimates predicted about 150-200 of the more than 8,000 people incarcerated in CCJ at any given time would be eligible for the program. With more than 70,000 annual admissions to CCJ, 200 impacted people amounts to less than a quarter of one percent of the admitted individuals. Eligibility is further reduced by the requirement that defendants not have certain prior convictions. Cara Smith, Dart’s Chief of Policy, reported in April of this year that only 13% of eligible prisoners were referred for the Rocket Docket pilot program, and fewer than that were actually released. That means as few as 26 people could have been referred through the pilot program for release, and fewer than that released.
Now, Sheriff Dart is trying to expand the Accelerated Resolution Court Act through HB 6190. The new bill expands the pool of eligible defendants to include those charged with certain traffic violations and class 4 felony violations of the Illinois Controlled Substances Act. The bill has already passed both houses of the legislature and is awaiting Governor Rauner’s signature.
The problems with the “Rocket Docket” as a solution for unnecessary pretrial detention, however, are not simply the miniscule number of eligible defendants or abysmally low referral rate. As a result, the pilot’s real limitations cannot be addressed simply by statutorily expanding the pool of eligible defendants. First and most importantly, 30 days is a horrifically long time to hold anyone in jail who is deemed appropriate for release. As a standard, it avoids none of the well-documented harms caused by even a few days in detention [PDF] such as increased recidivism, loss of jobs and housing, higher rates of conviction, and longer sentences. The easier and much simpler, evidence-based solution [PDF] would be to release such low-level offenders on personal recognizance bonds immediately instead of allowing judges to continue to set monetary bonds that will be overridden only after a defendant has spent 30 destructive and expensive days in detention.
Secondly, the vast majority of misdemeanor retail theft and criminal trespass cases are already resolved in under 30 days, most often through dismissals or plea agreements. Rather than shortening the length of stay in Cook County Jail, establishing 30 days as a cut-off period for such low-level cases has in some instances worked to lengthen the defendant’s incarceration, the opposite of its design. When public defenders raise the issue of bond for eligible defendants and request release on a personal recognizance bond or EM, the assistant state’s attorneys in some courtrooms have been observed to cite the 30 day cut-off as still weeks out and reason to put off re-evaluating the money bond currently keeping the defendant incarcerated. Rather than create a norm of not incarcerating people charged with misdemeanors, the Accelerated Resolution Court Act has in part worked to normalize up to 30 days of incarceration for defendants charged with even these most harmless of offenses.
If the goal is to release these defendants who cannot pay their bonds, then there are also numerous court dates that occur earlier than 30 days in and that would provide much more natural points of re-evaluation for bond decisions, such as arraignment or preliminary hearings. In addition, the Rocket Docket’s narrow eligibility requirements further reinforce the idea that defendants who are not eligible should remain detained longer than 30 days–reinforcing a false division of “worthy” and “unworthy” defendants based simply on a short lists of current charges cross-referenced with past convictions. Such an oversimplified and thus politically appealing determination of who may be detained pre-trial for more than 30 days is not research-based. In fact, it flies in the face of studies that link unnecessary pretrial detention with increased recidivism and support the use of only interventions that match properly assessed risks and needs. These costs to the larger conversation about necessary criminal justice reform are quite simply not worth the benefit of releasing at most 26 people per year sooner than they might otherwise be released.
Sheriff Dart, meanwhile, has been reaping the publicity benefits of the Rocket Docket and its proposed expansion. As a statutory intervention into jail populations, it is not designed to address the issues of mass incarceration, something Sheriff Dart has implied. Overall, the Rocket Docket legislation is poorly designed policy carrying the potential to serve far too few people to be worthwhile. While heartbreaking, the stories Dart shares with press–such as that of “D.E.” who spent 86 days in Cook County Jail for trespass–are outliers. These extreme cases should be addressed alongside the unnecessary and unjustifiable four day or two week jail stays requiring that all defendants with nonviolent charges be given personal recognizance bonds or some similarly broad standard. The public should demand good policy that pushes judges to rely increasingly on personal recognizance bonds instead of maintaining a system that allows money to determine pretrial incarceration. Additional policy changes occurring earlier on in a potential defendant’s contact with the criminal legal system such as alternatives to arrest and pre-prosecution diversion must also be explored if we are to truly decrease the strain on criminal courts and lessen case processing time.
Although the Rocket Docket makes a great soundbite for an ambitious politician, it is poor public policy. We can and must do much better if we are truly serious about reducing unnecessary pretrial detention.