April 10, 2014
A recent report by the Illinois Supreme Court raises significant concerns about Cook County’s pretrial services.
The Cook County Pretrial Services Department (PSD) was established in 1990 to address a host of concerns, not the least of which was overcrowding. While inmate crowding at the Cook County Jail first garnered major media and legislative attention in the 1960s and 1970s and culminated in a federal consent decree in 1974, the County’s jail capacity problems go back much further. Since the inception of the Chicago House of Corrections in 1871, issues of facility capacity have plagued Cook County. In fact, the Cook County Jail was constructed in 1928 in direct response to severe crowding in the House of Corrections, where the average daily population (ADP) had grown to more than double the original facility’s intended capacity. In recent years, renewed attention has turned to the issue of overcrowding at the Cook County Jail because of prolonged swells in the ADP that have left the Jail operating at greater than 95% of its rated capacity.
While some inmates of the Jail have already been convicted and are serving out their sentences there, the vast majority of the Jail’s population has been charged with a felony and is awaiting trial. From the time of arrest to the pretrial and bond court process, the Cook County justice system is presented with two choices: (1) release the individual on bond or electronic monitoring and allow this defendant to remain in his/her community and continue to work and attend school or (2) eliminate any risk of the defendant failing to appear in court or committing another, possibly even violent, crime by detaining him/her in the Jail. In theory, the Illinois Pretrial Services Act provides the legal framework for this dilemma. Yet, as the Illinois Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts found in its report, Circuit Court of Cook County Pretrial Operational Review, issued on March 21, 2014, the Pretrial Services Act “has become largely aspirational, rather than a model for everyday procedure” (p.5). The implication of this is spelled out in the report: “pretrial is a misunderstood and perhaps underappreciated function of the judicial system” of Cook County (p.24).
The Illinois Supreme Court’s report on pretrial services was spurred by a request from Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans for funding for 15 additional pretrial positions. The report had two purposes: (1) to study current pretrial and bond court policies, practices and standards relative to pertinent Illinois law and emerging best practices and (2) to provide recommendations and analysis for the consideration of the Court. In its research, the Administrative Office says it applied a data-driven formula to determine the current levels of staffing need for funding allocation. Instead of discovering that the pretrial division was understaffed, as could be anticipated from the Chief Judge’s request, the Office instead found overstaffing. While current staffing at the court consists of 60 full-time staff and an additional 34 supervisors and officers devoting proportionate amounts of time to pretrial functions, the report concluded that only 51 positions were necessary. “Unless pretrial and bond court organizational and operational processes are changed to address the series of issues contained in this report,” the Supreme Court noted, “additional staff are not warranted and would be minimally effective” (p.33).
While the Illinois Supreme Court did not find additional staffing needs warranted, it did find a need for restructuring and reorganizing and issued suggestions to this effect in its list of forty recommendations presented for the Court’s consideration. In his response to the Supreme Court’s report, Chief Judge Evans reiterated the request for additional funding for pretrial services and noted that he had “already completed one of the Supreme Court’s recommendations in that he recently name[d] Lavone Haywood as the new head of Adult Probation and Sharon Hoffman, as Director of the Court’s Social Service Department.” The Chief Judge also noted that he had made changes to the managerial structure within these departments. The Chief Judge, along with his staff, pledged to study the report and then decide how to best proceed. The Illinois Supreme Court, for its part, has committed its Administrative Office to working toward the furtherance of many of the report’s recommendations, including working with criminal justice subject matter experts to implement a new validated pretrial assessment instrument statewide.