PI Original Josh Kalven Sunday January 25th, 2009, 2:09pm

Preckwinkle Spotlights Overcrowded Cook County Jail

While there are several elected officials in this state working to reform the prison system in Illinois, it's not every day that you see a candidate take to the stump on this issue.  So it was refreshing to listen to Ald. Toni Preckwinkle on Fox Chicago Sunday this ...

While there are several elected officials in this state working to reform the prison system in Illinois, it's not every day that you see a candidate take to the stump on this issue.  So it was refreshing to listen to Ald. Toni Preckwinkle on Fox Chicago Sunday this morning as she made one of her first media appearances as a candidate for Cook County board president.  When asked what she hopes to do if elected, the overcrowded county jail was the first issue she brought up:

PRECKWINKLE: We'e gotta figure out a way to help Sheriff [Tom] Dart with programs that take people out of the jail and the kind of revolving door there, so we have alternative sentencing programs and we have diversion programs that take people out of the system.  You know, most of the young men -- and it's mostly young men -- in the Cook County jail have a substance abuse program and do not have a high school education.  [...]

What we need in our communities is for these young men to be rescued, in a way -- not incarcerated.  We gotta figure out a way to help them get their lives back on track.  And I don't think that means cycling them through the jail. 

More specifically, Preckwinkle cited "day reporting" centers as a possible alternative to incarcerating low-risk, non-violent offenders.  Here's a description of how such programs work, from freelance writer Patrick Hyde:

Day reporting centers are places to which offenders who are on pretrial release, probation or parole are required to appear regularly. Through treatment and training, the centers provide an intermediate sanction for, and reduce recidivism by, low-risk offenders. Most people referred to the centers have drug and alcohol problems and are closely monitored as part of a 90- to 180- day program with random drug screens and breathalyzers. The centers also offer classes in anger management, substance abuse, life skills, cognitive skills, and employment and educational training. The Washington-based Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 4,747 day reporting centers existed nationwide in 2005.

When asked how she would pay for such programming, Preckwinkle pointed to the cost savings associated with a smaller prison population. 

In light of her remarks, it's important to situate this issue in a broader context.  Let's remember that Illinois -- and particularly Cook County -- incarcerates an abnormal number of non-violent offenders.  From a post we published on the issue last October:

When it comes to ... drug-related offenses, Illinois is out of the mainstream. A 2006 paper (PDF) by Roosevelt University's Institute for Metropolitan Affairs ranked Illinois first in the per capita incarceration of African-Americans convicted of drug possession and second in the incarceration of individuals for drug possession. [John Howard Association executive director Malcolm] Young says that a very large number of the state’s drug arrests and prosecutions take place in Cook County -- where the police department and state prosecutors have emphasized tough enforcement --  and they disproportionately affect people of color. 

And as University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack observed at Cook County Jail, the facility has a detrimental affect on inmates' physical and mental health, which then spreads to the neighborhood once they're released:

The motley population that passes through local jails is especially important. These inmates are especially hard to serve during their typically-brief incarcerations. Many have not seen a doctor in years. The same behaviors that land them in jail expose them to serious physical and mental health risks. When these issues go unaddressed in the correctional system, thousands of people quickly bring these problems back to their families and local communities. These physical and mental health problems frequently resurface when former inmates require emergency care -- or when something worse happens. 

Credit goes to Preckwinkle for spotlighting an issue that most shy away from.

Editors Note: Normally, we would include a brief video clip from Preckwinkle's appearance, as well as a link to the full segment on Fox Chicago's website (if available).  But thanks to Fox's decision last month to have our YouTube channel shut down, we're not doing either here.  Let this serve as a reminder to the network that punishing bloggers for promoting your video content gets you nowhere. 

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