Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle would begin overseeing an effort to ease overcrowding at the county jail by releasing detainees on electronic monitoring under an agreement reached this week with the sheriff.
The agreement, which still needs the approval of a federal judge, would transfer oversight from Sheriff Tom Dart to Preckwinkle’s office for the next two years. Preckwinkle has made criminal-justice reform a key part of her agenda, including to reduce costs by releasing nonviolent offenders who can’t afford to make bail.
The jail’s population now stands at about 8,900 but peaked at more than 10,000 last summer for the first time since 2007.
Preckwinkle’s office has differed with the sheriff on what impact the effort could have on reducing overcrowding in the future.
The agreement gives Dart veto power to block the release of more detainees to electronic monitoring if his office doesn’t have the capacity to monitor more defendants. And the sheriff’s office said that it has already nearly reached that capacity, so any significant increase in the numbers of inmates released on electronic monitoring would require beefing up staff.
The sheriff’s office also expects that a small number of detainees would be eligible for release because judges are already placing most of those who do qualify on electronic monitoring.
Preckwinkle’s office, however, said it believes many more nonviolent offenders could safely be released.
Most defendants are placed on electronic monitoring by criminal court judges at bond hearings, but a federal judge in 2011 gave Dart the power to release up to an additional 1,500 inmates to reduce overcrowding. Those so-called administrative releases only account for 148 of the more than 2,300 currently on electronic monitoring, officials said.
Both sides agreed that Preckwinkle’s office was in a better position to oversee the effort.
“It’s much more appropriate for this authority not to be with the jailer, so there’s some independence in the process,” said Cara Smith, the jail’s executive director.
Juliana Stratton, who heads Preckwinkle’s criminal-justice advisory council, said Warren Wolfson, a former longtime judge at both the county circuit and state appellate levels, is helping with the effort.
“There are almost 9,000 people that are at the jail,” Stratton said. “...We believe that there are others who can be safely released back to their community while awaiting trial.”
Preckwinkle previously told the Tribune editorial board that she would hire more retired judges to review cases looking for inmates who could safely be released. She also would increase funding for social-service programs, such as housing for defendants who are homeless, paying for it by cutting overtime for jail guards.
She also said costs would go down over time with fewer inmates in the jail.
U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall would need to approve for the agreement to take effect.
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