Financial Impact of Recent Decline in Jail Population Remains Elusive
(CHICAGO) In a report released today, the Civic Federation called on Cook County’s Chief Judge and Sheriff to follow the practices of other large metropolitan jurisdictions in more fully disclosing information about Cook County’s bond court and jail population. According to the report, increased transparency will enable the public to have better informed discussions about criminal justice and the effective use of taxpayer dollars, ultimately empowering taxpayers to hold government officials more accountable. The full report is available here.
While recognizing recent improvements in bond court practices and interagency cooperation, the Civic Federation staff found that data on bond court and the jail population were not readily available to the public and learned that other organizations faced similar difficulties. Significant challenges to obtaining information have included lengthy delays and lack of responsiveness by public officials. With varied success, several groups including the Federation have attempted to sidestep challenges by making efforts to obtain data through direct bond court observations.
“In 2017, no interested party should have to jump through such unreasonable hoops to obtain court and jail statistics,” said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall. “Considering the major impact our criminal justice system has on the financial and social welfare of our communities, the public has a right to know much more than is currently released.”
Through publicly available data and media statements, for example, the Federation knows that the population of Cook County jail is down by 39% since 2013, and a new bail policy by the Chief Judge appears to be having a significant impact. Due to a lack of public information, it is unclear how much of the long-term decline in the jail population is tied to a reduction in low-level arrests and charges or changes in bond court practices. It is not known whether there has been any change in the share of defendants released while awaiting trial who fail to appear in court or commit new crimes. Further, while use of electronic monitoring (EM) has tripled since 2011, there has been no public assessment of whether EM has been used effectively or appropriately.
“Through the process of researching this report, we know the County agencies keep a fair amount of this data behind closed doors,” said Msall. “For increased government transparency and accountability, the Civic Federation calls on the Chief Judge and the Sheriff to release this information for public review and examination.”
To improve data accessibility and coordination among the various agencies that make up the County criminal justice system, the Federation offers recommendations in six areas: Cook County bond court and pretrial data; Cook County jail data; special reports on bond court; special reports on the jail; analysis of the impact of jail population reduction on jail costs; and establishment of a criminal justice coordinating council.
In addition to highlighting the aforementioned challenges and offering recommendations, the Federation’s report reviews the organizational structure of the County’s criminal justice system, explores costs related to operating the system and examines the County’s bond court process and related recent developments.