Overcrowding in Cook County’s criminal justice system has for years been a hot-button issue and recently four area leaders spoke at the City Club of Chicago and addressed the high number of incarcerated low-level offenders and offenders with mental health issues.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who oversees Cook County Jail, said in the forum that the problem he keeps coming back to is whether the wrong people are being jailed and whether their sentences too long.
Dart said that on any given day a third of the jail population, or approximately 3,000 inmates, suffers from serious mental illness. He added overcrowding in the regular areas of the system is not the issue that people should focus on right now.
“The only area of the jail that is not only overcrowded today, but overcrowded everyday, with people sleeping on the floors, is the mental health unit…every single day,” he said.
Dart, along with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, believes the overcrowding in the mental health unit stems not only from budget cuts to mental health services, but also the number of inmates being held for low-level offenses, who Dart said in no way are “jeopardizing the safety of the community.”
“We have become the dumping ground for a dysfunctional system where the players that I am talking about are frankly not in this room,” Dart said.
“I think frankly the state should be here talking about what they are attempting to do for this system right now; they shouldn’t be let off the hook.”
Dart pointed out that in 45 states the largest mental health provider is the prison, which he called an “absolute embarrassment.”
“Across the country the easiest thing to do is cut mental health services and they have done it. What ends up happening are the people don’t get better, they don’t get treatment; they go to prisons and jails and emergency rooms and we are seeing that over and over again and it’s not getting better,” he said.
Preckwinkle, spoke about the high rates of black and brown people incarcerated, and said 86 percent of Cook County’s jail population is represented by those groups. She said the way to solve both problems is to divert people before they get into the justice system and advocated that police drop off those with mental illness to a hospital rather than to jail.
Preckwinkle also pointed out that 90 percent of the people in Cook County jails are there because they are awaiting trail, with 70 percent of those being there for non-violent crimes, many of which she said are shoplifting or trespassing.
Timothy Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, agreed no one should have to go to jail to receive mental health services, but also said the low-level offenders referred to by Dart often have a violent criminal history.
“I don’t want anybody to leave under the impression that the only reason people are being locked up is if they steal a few candy bars,” Evans said.
“Many of the people you hear about who are charged with the theft of six or seven candy bars have a long criminal history where they have been convicted of attempted murder, attempted robbery, all kinds of things.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, focused her attention on gun control and called for stronger gun laws.
“We can’t ignore the fact that we have guns on the streets in the hands of the wrong people,” Alvarez said.”We can’t ignore the fact that we are losing each and every day more and more of our young children to senseless violence.”
With Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposing another $82 million in cuts to state mental health services, things may only get worse and Dart said he hopes when legislators start thinking about these “great savings” that somebody has a “functioning brain.”
“I understand they have their issues there but to not be thoughtful in what they are doing, which clearly they are not, is not okay,” Dart said.
“No one has come to me and said, ‘listen these cuts are precise because we looked at what programs work and what don’t work.’”
They are just looking to cut and my five-year-old can do that,” he said.