One woman stole two plums and some candy from a Save-A-Lot store.
A man swiped eight bags of Snickers bars and a pair of scissors from a CVS Pharmacy. And another man with mental problems and a history of loitering at O’Hare Airport was caught trespassing there again.
Those low-level offenders spent a total of 227 days in the Cook County Jail awaiting trial at a cost of $47,905 to taxpayers — a situation Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart calls “heart-breaking.” At a news conference Tuesday, he said he’s looking for ways to keep such non-violent offenders from having extended stays behind bars before trial.
Usually, they can’t get out of jail because they can’t afford to put up money for bail. Judges, following state law, boost their bonds when such defendants have a history of failing to show up for court hearings, Dart said.
“We find low-level offenders, people who are no danger to anybody, that are stuck in this place,” he said of the sprawling jail complex at 26th and California. “This is a place that’s supposed to be for violent people — people who hurt people, people who shoot people — not folks who steal, not folks who trespass on someone’s property.”
Dart, who runs the jail, said he’s focusing on people whose main charges are retail theft or criminal trespassing. On Tuesday, about 450 people were in the jail on those lead charges, he said.
Dart is proposing legislation to require judges to 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.
Starting next week, his staff will hold regular high-level meetings with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and Cook County public defender’s office to expedite the cases of people facing such low-level charges. They’ll address five to 10 cases at each meeting, he said.
He’s also proposing diverting accused shoplifters and trespassers who suffer from mental illness into a two-week program at the jail to address those needs. Afterward, they would go on electronic monitoring for several months while jail officials make sure they’re getting treated for their illnesses.
Dart said keeping accused shoplifters and trespassers out of jail would result in “huge savings.” It costs about $145 per day to house an inmate, he said.
He stressed his proposal isn’t designed to relieve crowding. Currently, two and a half of the jail’s 10 housing divisions have been mothballed because only 8,500 detainees are being held in the facility designed to hold 11,000 detainees. Another 2,000 detainees live outside the jail on electronic monitoring as they await trial.
“Capacity is not the issue; it’s the issue of the wrong people taking up jail space,” Dart said.
Dart said he discussed his proposed legislation with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and received a positive response.
“We have not signed onto it because we have not seen the language,” said Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel for the association. “We could possibly support it if it is what they described.”
Triche said retailers would support having shoplifting cases resolved in 30 days. Court delays can make such cases harder to prove, she said.
“We are interested in making sure people who have stolen from retailers are justly adjudicated,” Triche said. “We have plenty of common ground here.”
Dart said if his proposal is successful, he might expand it to non-violent, low-level drug offenders.
“Clearly, that’s the next step of where we want to go,” he said.