Rauner signs Cook County jail reform

Rauner signs Cook County jail reform

New “rocket docket” reform could reduce lengthy pretrial jail stays for some accused of minor property crimes, saving Illinois taxpayers up to $143 per inmate each day.

A new law creating a “rocket docket” program to adjudicate minor property offenses in Cook County could help reduce spending on jails by avoiding incarcerating alleged offenders who are too poor to afford the bail for which they would otherwise be eligible.

On Aug. 21, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 202, the Accelerated Resolution Court Act. The law creates a faster way for courts and jails to address the indigent accused, who often stay in jail instead of being released on bail simply because they don’t have enough money for a bail bond. The new law creates a pilot program in Cook County to process certain property offenders within 30 days. If a case is not resolved within 30 days, the judge will release the accused on his or her own recognizance or under electronic monitoring. The judge could also impose other conditions such as drug treatment for the alleged offender.

To be eligible for the accelerated resolution court, the accused must be unable to afford bail and must only have been charged with either trespassing or retail theft of under $300. And a participant cannot have committed any violent crimes during the 10 years prior to his or her arrest.

This reform marks an improvement over the current system in which the average jail stay for retail theft cases that would qualify for the new accelerated program is 59 days, according to the Cook County sheriff’s office. But it’s only a first step toward fairer treatment for indigent arrestees. An innocent person accused of trespassing or low-level retail theft who is too poor to afford bail could still stay in jail for up to a month.

Someone accused of the same crime who can afford bail can get out of jail quickly – and is thus less likely to lose employment, housing or parental rights. Pretrial release exists because in the U.S., a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until the state proves that person’s guilt. It makes sense to hold a person awaiting trial when there’s good evidence the accused threatens public safety or will flee the jurisdiction. But otherwise, until an accused person either pleads guilty or is proven guilty in court, he or she has a right to freedom.

Lengthy and unnecessary incarceration inflicts signficant costs on taxpayers, too. In Cook County, it costs about $143 per day to keep someone in jail. Of course, law enforcement must vigorously enforce laws protecting property. But in many cases of retail theft, taxpayers pay many times more to incarcerate someone than the accused is even alleged to have stolen – oftentimes only because the accused is too poor to afford bail.

Bail is meant to motivate criminal defendants to return to court – if the accused have to put up money, they are believed to be more likely to return for their hearings. The ability to pay for bail doesn’t mean someone is more trustworthy or less dangerous: It merely means that person has money to spare.

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.

The criminal-justice system must protect public safety and the rights of the accused while properly stewarding public resources. More extensive reforms will be needed to address other aspects of pretrial incarceration, which can make up a significant part of county-level spending. SB 202, though limited in reach, is a step toward making jail systems more cost-effective and fair.

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

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