A Letter to the Editor of The Chicago Sun Times : Sheriff Tom Dart’s Administrative Release Program

The following is a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun Times regarding an article entitled Dart Wants Candy Thieves, Other Shoplifters and Trespassers Out Of His Jail.

On March 10th, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart made a visit to Springfield to propose legislation requiring that judges dispose of shoplifting and trespassing cases within a month of an arrest or release the defendants on a non-cash bond or electronic monitoring until their trials. Since then he’s been in the media, including a nearly 20-minute spot on the Anderson Cooper 360, talking about issues with the Cook County justice system. It is refreshing to see the Sheriff moving to change the process in which low-level nonviolent cases are handled. The fact that so many individuals are held in jail simply because they cannot afford bail has been a point of tension for years in communities who are most affected by these practices. A city-wide grassroots movement called DecarcerateChi has been building around the demand that all individuals accused of nonviolent crimes be released without bail.

A protest organized by DecarcerateChi at the Cook County Administrative Building
A direct action organized by DecarcerateChi at the Cook County Administrative Building

It went unmentioned, however, that the Sheriff has the ability to release up to 1500 individuals from the jail under the Administrative Release Program approved in 2011, allowing for non-violent pretrial detainees with no history of violent offenses to be released on non-cash bonds or electronic monitoring. This order was intended to ease overcrowding of the jail, which is currently not overcrowded by definition. However a large influx of arrests or parole violations could flood the jail at any time. Currently Sheriff Dart has only released a total of 57 men and 28 women under this order. If he is concerned about people who do not belong in the jail taking up space there, why won’t he use this power to dramatically reduce the number of non-violent cases awaiting trial behind bars?

As for the proposed legislation, Sheriff Dart is on the right track, but while incremental policy changes may help to reduce jail population and save tax dollars in the short term, much more thorough revision needs to occur, including cooperation and a commitment to reduce jail population from all stakeholders including state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, whose office determines charges brought and therefore feeds the jail population.

Ruby Pinto is a leader with SOUL and a contributor to Cook County Justice Watch

A Letter to the Editor of The Chicago Sun Times

A recent Sun Times editorial shed some much-needed light on the fact that in Cook County, individuals accused of non-violent crimes often spend extended amounts of time behind bars after their initial court appearance simply because they cannot afford bail. The piece highlights statistics that link pre-trial detention to harsher sentencing, as well as the high cost of incarcerating low-risk defendants rather than allowing them to await trial at home. An alternative in-or-out system used in other parts of the nation is also briefly introduced.

The editorial stopped short, however, of covering the process in which this system is already being reformed. Efforts that have been made by the supreme court, county employees, community organizations and other advocates to push for bond court reform were completely ignored. Because of the ongoing effort made by these individuals and groups, some of which are covered in this piece published by the Red Eye, approximately 50% of defendants are currently sent home on I-bonds or electronic monitoring, up from 21% in 2011. This increase is the result of better pretrial services that allow judges to make more informed decisions, as well as an increase in the use of electronic monitoring and the number of I-bonds granted. Other initiatives, such as eliminating the automatic transfer of minors to adult court and preventing the implementation of mandatory minimum laws are currently underway to further ease overincarceration.

Image by Cook County
Image by Cook County

The Sun Times article does focus on one decision maker: newly appointed Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. Governor Rauner’s administration is said to be laying “the groundwork for reforms that will make our criminal justice system fairer and more cost-effective.” But what does that groundwork look like, and how will it work? Rauner has the ability to make some initial executive orders that will get the process started. Ali Abid, the Criminal Justice Policy Analyst at Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, says parole violations are an obvious first step.

“Currently approximately 700 people being held in the Cook County Jail are there for technical violations of parole, just waiting to be transferred back to the Illinois Department Of Corrections. Due to the relatively unserious nature of most of their violations they would likely be re-released from prison soon after being reprocessed. But until that happens they are stuck in limbo, in the Cook County Jail, with county taxpayers paying the bill. It is within Governor Rauner’s power to release or remove these individuals and, moreover, work to revamp the state’s parole system.” – Ali Abid, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice

Once parole violations are addressed, the governor might further consider the wide scope of his executive abilities. “Governor Rauner should look at his powers broadly in examining what can be done to reduce the state prison and local jail populations,” says Abid.

This issue has been in the hearts and minds of families, young people and clergy for quite some time. At the grassroots level, hundreds of Cook County residents have been organizing around and educating the public on bail/bond reform in recent years. DecarcerateCHI is a task force working with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) that has targeted State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, calling on her to be a leader in reform of bond court and to take on a much stronger role in addressing and eliminating racial disparity that appears throughout the criminal justice system. Tristan Bock-Hughes, a second-year Public Policy student at University of Chicago, is a leader with DecarcerateCHI. He places a high emphasis on the importance of community input and availability of elected officials to their constituents.

Image by DecarcerateCHI
Image by DecarcerateCHI

“The DecarcerateCHI campaign has been working for over a year to achieve the exact kinds of pre-trial reforms to the Cook County system this Sun Times Article suggests. Yet Anita Alvarez has been less than open to even communicating with policy experts and community organizers,” says Bock-Hughes. “It is shameful that organizations like Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, the Indiana Illinois Regional Organizing Network, and Organizing Catholics for Justice had to send months worth of letters, emails, and calls before finally staging multiple protests just to meet with her once. Governor Rauner must learn from the mistakes of politicians like Anita Alvarez and actually meet with the experts that work in these systems day in and day out if any reform is going to be achieved.”

A truly successful reform of the deeply flawed criminal justice system in Cook County and statewide will be one that combines efforts being made on all fronts from executive to grass-roots, and takes into account the needs of communities, taxpayers and those who have been incarcerated and will be impacted most by reform or lack there of.

Ruby Pinto is a leader with SOUL and a contributor to Cook County Justice Watch

Selecting a New Cook County Public Defender : The Process

On March 31, 2015, Abishi Cunningham’s six-year term as Public Defender for Cook County will end. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has elected to replace Cunningham with a new public defender. This choice is a critical one for the immediate future of criminal justice in Cook County. The Cook County Public Defender’s Office comprises nearly 750 staff members, including 550 attorneys who represent defendants in the grand majority of criminal cases in the county.

Though the selection of a public defender is entirely within the authority of the County Board President, after the appointment the position is highly independent. With this one appointment, the policy goals and management style for the government body that most directly represents the accused will be set for six years.

Due to the importance of this appointment and the lack of information available elsewhere on the process behind it, we at Cook County Justice Watch are describing the process here to better inform the public. This blog entry will describe the search process currently underway for the new Cook County P.D. The search is proceeding in three stages: (1) identifying prospective candidates, (2) review committee interviews; and (3) the President’s final selection and board approval.

Image Randy von Liski
Image Randy von Liski

Identifying Prospective Candidates

In December 2014 President Preckwinkle sent letters out to the six Chicago-area law schools, three local bar associations, and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, inviting them to submit up to three names each to be considered by the President’s Review Committee.

The law schools included the University of Chicago Law School, the Northwestern University Law School, the John Marshall Law School, Chicago-Kent Law School, the Loyola University School of Law, and the DePaul University Law School. The three bar association are the Chicago Council of Lawyers, the Cook County Bar Association, and the Chicago Bar Association.

My own organization, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, has been selected to collect recommendations from the social justice research policy community, including First Defense Legal Aid, Cabrini Green Legal Services, and Lawndale Christian Legal Services, and to narrow these recommendations down to three names.

These names—along with the résumés and an indication of the willingness of the individuals to be interviewed—are due to President Preckwinkle’s office by January 26, 2015.


The Review Committee

The next step is the President’s review committee. The review committee will take up to twelve names sent to them and conduct interviews to reduce the final list of recommendations to three.

The Review committee is chaired by Judge Joy Cunningham (no relation to Public Defender Cunningham), and comprises the following individuals:

  • Edwin Reyes, a former Chicago Police Officer and Board Commissioner,
  • Jeffrey Urdangen, clinical professor at the Northwestern School of Law and an established leader in the defense bar,
  • Diane Williams, the retired CEO of the Safer Foundation whose experience as a crime victim motivated her to make a career in reforming the rehabilitative opportunities presented to defendants, and
  • Patrick Covington, an ex-offender and a strong member of the alumni association of one of the County’s rehabilitative drug treatment programs.
  • Judge Rhoda Sweeney (ret.) is also on the committee as an alternate.


President’s Final Selection and Board Approval

The review committee must conclude its interview process and submit a final list of the three names to President Preckwinkle toward the end of February or the beginning of March. At this point President Preckwinkle will work toward getting the candidate approved by the Cook County Board at their mid-March meeting.

As the President, the review committee, and the various organizations do their work over the next two months they should keep in mind the various challenges that any qualified candidate for the position of Public Defender in Cook County has to be able to tackle. First, the new Public Defender has to be active in pushing forward reforms in the fast-changing world of criminal justice nationwide. Public Defenders have a key role to play in ensuring that racial and wealth disparities are addressed in the system, that judges, state’s attorneys, and law enforcement officers are respecting the rights of the accused, and that new case management and treatment opportunities are being effectively and correctly administered to their clients. Second, the Public Defender has to be able to effectively manage a large governmental office with a unionized workforce and be able to work collaboratively with other governmental departments and agencies in a county known for its tense interdepartmental politics.

The dates for the selection process are approaching quickly and we will be following this process closely.

Ali Abid is the Criminal Justice Policy Analyst with Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice