Top four criminal justice leaders agree change is in the cards

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaking to the City Club of Chicago. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun Times

Cook County’s top four criminal justice leaders agreed Wednesday that big changes should be made tothe criminal justice system to stop violent crimes and to also reduce recidivism by providing mental health and support services.

As Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle criticized the jail’s population of low-level offenders, citing an inmate who had stolen six bars of soap, Chief Judge Timothy Evans pointed out those offenders don’t always have a nonviolent criminal history. He has the job of protecting the public from those people, he told a packed crowd at the City Club of Chicago luncheon.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart largely criticized Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed cuts to mental health services, which Dart said will be disastrous for the jail. He’s long called it the largest provider of mental health care in the state.

“The thing that I keep circling back to is, do we have the right people in the jail and do we have them there for the proper amount of time? And I can tell you categorically the answer I feel strong about is no, absolutely not,” Dart said. “I look at it as we’ve become the dumping ground for a dysfunctional system where the players that I’m talking about frankly are not in this room.”

Dart said the system isn’t working because “the system doesn’t view people as individuals.”

Dart said 250 inmates whose most serious crime is retail theft spend an average of 112 days in jail; those in jail with the most serious crime being criminal trespass to property average 140 days behind bars.

“This is not a system that’s working properly. While there’s many, many good things going on we have to address this because these are humans. These are real people. We have some horrible, evil people and the system will take care of them . . . but the majority of people are people who made horrible mistakes throughout their lives and had very little options,” Dart said.

Dart said the answer is a “thoughtful” system that offers continuous care for those in need of mental health care, not cuts to mental health care services.

“God knows what the governor’s office is talking about,” Dart said. “We will have to reopen the other divisions if they go ahead with this stuff and they’ll all be mental health divisions.”

To Preckwinkle, too many “black and brown” people are being incarcerated and it’s about “race and class” with 86 percent of inmates in the jail being African-American or Hispanic. Many stay in the jail for extended periods because they can’t pay their bond.

She told the crowd about a visit to the jail by South African delegates.

“They got to the end of the jail and said ‘Where is the jail for white people?’” Preckwinkle said. “That’s where we are in this country. We’re incarcerating an incredible amount of black and brown people.”

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Cook County Chief Timothy Evans and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez speak to the City Club of Chicago. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Evans announced he’d begin a program June 1 to specialize services for prostitution defendants at the domestic violence courthouse.

“[It] will once again treat these victims like human beings, and treat them fairly,” Evans said of the program he helped develop with Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who sat next to him at the luncheon.

Evans said the jail population is below 8,000, the lowest since 1991. And the introduction of electronic monitoring with an individual recognizance bond has saved taxpayers $70 million a year, he said to cheers.

Alvarez said her focus is on curbing violent crimes by strengthening 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 more and more of our young children to senseless violence.”

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