State jails filled with those who shouldn’t be there

By Bryant Jackson-Green
Illinois Policy

Gov. Bruce Rauner has established a commission to study reforms that would allow Illinois to reduce its prison population 25 percent by 2025. Illinois’ overcrowded state prisons ranked as themost crowded in the country at the end of 2014. And Illinois’ local jail populations are also growing at an alarming rate, with some inmates being held only because they cannot afford bail.

Right now, many lower-level offenders are kept in jail while awaiting trial – not because they pose a public-safety threat, but simply because they can’t afford to post bail. In one case highlighted by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, a man too poor to make bail spent 114 days in jail for allegedly stealing a Snickers bar – costing taxpayers over $16,000. In another case, a homeless man accused of stealing toothpaste and breath mints spent 308 days in jail – over 10 months – because he didn’t have a home eligible for electronic monitoring. Taxpayers spent $44,044 for that man’s incarceration.

Although prisons are run by the state and incarcerate people after they have been convicted of felony offenses, jails – typically run at the county level – are supposed to be short-term facilities where offenders are held after they are arrested, or where offenders serve time for misdemeanors when their sentences last for less than a year. Most residents in local jails have not yet been found guilty of any crimes – 90 percent of inmates in the Cook County Department of Corrections, or DOC, are awaiting trial.

Illinois jails booked over 284,000 people in 2014, more than 2.6 times the 108,000 people booked in 1981, according to data from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, or ICJIA.

The growth in the number of people kept in jail is troubling because incarceration – even for a short period of time – can completely disrupt a person’s life. A stay of even a few days can cause a person to miss work and lose employment.

Not only does an extended stay in jail harm those arrested, who risk losing work and enduring family hardships, but housing inmates in local jails also imposes heavy costs on taxpayers. For example, the cost to keep an inmate at the Cook County DOC is $143 per day, and the average length of stay is 57 days – for a total cost of $8,151.

This isn’t just a problem for Cook County. The ICJIA data track bookings numbers at county jails located throughout the state’s 102 counties. Trends vary by county, although most saw increases, some of which were substantial. All regions in Illinois reported increases in their local jail populations. Jail bookings in central Illinois nearly doubled, to over 85,000 in 2014 from approximately 44,000 in 1981. And southern Illinois’ bookings more than doubled to over 47,000 from 22,000 during the same period.

Rates of the average daily jail population in 4 of Illinois’ top 5 counties have also increased since the early 1980s.

In order to stop overspending on local jails ­­– which often house people who shouldn’t be there in the first place – Illinois must reform its bail system. Bail is meant to motivate criminal defendants to return to court: If the accused have to put up money, they are assumed to be more likely to return for their hearings. But the ability to pay for bail doesn’t mean someone is trustworthy or less dangerous. It merely means that person has money to spare.

Some jurisdictions have already adopted alternatives to bail. In Washington, D.C., for example, a defendant cannot be detained in jail for lack of financial resources to make bail or post a bail bond, and 88 percent of all arrestees return to court. Pretrial release exists because a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until the state proves that person’s guilt. It only makes sense to hold a person awaiting trial when there’s good evidence the accused threatens public safety or will flee the jurisdiction. Otherwise, until an accused person either pleads guilty or is proven guilty in court, he or she has a right to freedom.

As an alternative to bail, localities should look at risk-assessment systems that help determine whether to hold the accused before trial. Under such a system, a court would base its pretrial detainment decision on a defendant’s criminal history and age, as well as the nature of the offense and other risk factors.

It’s clear that Illinois’ prisons and jails have different sets of problems that must be addressed under any kind of comprehensive criminal-justice reform. Improving procedures at the local level in jails is a key part of making Illinois’ corrections system more cost-effective and fair while protecting public safety.

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