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Chicago’s Jail System Needs Major Reform

Op/Ed By Jesse Jackson


Jesse3( – In Chicago, “too many people continue to be incarcerated pre-trial, for far too long,” and “unjust incarceration of the mentally ill and poor remains at a crisis point.”

This is the stark conclusion of Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, who has led a campaign to transform what he denounces as a “system that actively facilitates the unjust incarceration of the mentally ill and poor.” (Source: Press release, Cook County Department of Corrections, Dec. 23, 2015)

When the sheriff indicts the system that he enforces, people must listen and respond. Dart’s campaign has already succeeded in creating the “Rocket Docket,” a pilot program that ensures that those charged with nonviolent, low-level “survival” crimes like retail theft or criminal trespass will have their cases completed in 30 days or be released from jail pending trial. The Rocket Docket has proved a valuable but insufficient step. On Dec. 23, Dart issued a press release detailing the numbers of those incarcerated and sounding once more the “urgent need for additional reform.”

The numbers are staggering. In 2015, the sheriff reports, there were approximately 70,000 admissions into the Cook County jail. About 2,200 spent all of the year incarcerated before even getting a trial. About one in eight people admitted— 8,700 — spent time in jail despite eventually having their charges dropped entirely. Think about that. Arrested, incarcerated, their lives torn apart. They can’t show up for work.

They are ripped from their families. They spend nights in prison. And then the charges are dropped. “Never mind,” says the state, but the damage done can’t be undone. More than 1,000 of those incarcerated spent so much time in jail before their trail that when they were convicted, their sentence had already been served. Many served more than their final sentence waiting for trial — a total of 79,726 days, the equivalent of 218 years of excessive incarceration beyond their ultimate sentences.

Each year, Chicago taxpayers are paying for 218 years’ worth of excess time in jail. And it isn’t cheap. Sheriff Dart notes that this requires an “assembly line of daily accommodations — food, medication, sanitary supplies, laundry, transportation, etc.” Cook County Jail is an industry that employs some 4,000 people to keep it running 24/7. They deliver 10 million meals, 150 semi truckloads of milk, 500 tons of meat, 250 tons of vegetables. They do 2.1 million pounds of laundry.

Almost 6,000 buses log 120,550 miles transporting prisoners to hearings. Doctors dispense 6.5 million doses of needed medicines. This tally does not include the police, the prosecutors, the judges and courtroom staff, the defense attorneys, those staffing community corrections programs, the contractors and much more. This prison-industrial complex is big business. Thousands of incomes and millions in profits are earned incarcerating largely poor and minority offenders before they are tried. Cook County Jail’s admission statistics reveal a structural bias.

Nearly 90 percent of those incarcerated are black or Latino. The vast majority of inmates are male. Of those charged with drug-related, nonviolent crimes, 91 percent are black and Latino. Eighty-nine percent of those incarcerated have a high school education or less; 45 percent haven’t finished high school. This is a system that is focused on poor men of color. Sheriff Dart urges reforms that will move “toward a humane and fiscally prudent approach” to incarceration.

He wants the county to be an example to the rest of the country in 2016. The sheriff is calling us to act. He’s exposing the harsh realities and costs of treating poor black men as disposables. It is time for Chicago’s elected officials to meet his challenge — and for its voters to demand that they stand up