Illinois' criminal-justice system has a long way to go despite limited progress in recent years, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said in a Feb. 1 forum at the Union League Club of Chicago.
The proper reforms are doable, he said. However, "there has to be this outrageous sense of urgency," he added. "These are real human beings [who] deserve to be treated much better."
The event, sponsored by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform ( ICPR ) and the Union League Club of Chicago's Public Affairs Committee, brought together roughly 225 civic community members in the Chicago areafrom state and county elected officials, to ICPR members, to ordinary citizensto discuss the successes and shortcomings of the state's criminal justice system.
Speakers included Dart; Paula Wolff, director of the Illinois Justice Project; and Dr. Toni Irving, executive director of Get IN Chicago. They described an incarceration system they said spends too much money jailing nonviolent offenders without the benefit of a fair and speedy trial, and without making appropriate efforts at rehabilitation and community engagement to stop the cycle of repeat offenders.
"Even the most erudite studies can only create a possible 25-percent relationship between people being incarcerated and crime going down," said Wolff.
She pointed to the Redeploy Illinois initiative, sponsored by the Illinois Department of Human Services ( DHS ), as an example of an effort that has reduced the state's incarcerated youth population. The programwhich currently serves 44 counties, and in which Cook County is eligible to participateprovides grants to communities who offer treatment alternatives other than jail for juvenile offenders. According to the DHS website, from its beginning in 2005 to the end of 2014, Redeploy Illinois resulted in almost 1,800 fewer incarcerated youth, and saved over $88 million in taxpayer costs.
"Communities are really at the center of what we want to think about in terms of criminal justice reform," said Irving, who listed a host of challenges facing at-risk youth, including poverty, incarcerated parents, and traumatic experiences. But many of these youthsuch as those living in the seven South Side communities that Get IN Chicago focuses onexperience a shortage of services to help them meet those challenges.
Dart described his work overseeing Cook County Jail, the nation's largest single-site jail. In the country's current criminal justice system, he said, offenders are incarcerated "cavalierly, without very much thought at all," for extended periods of timebefore being let go, "with a great deal of indifference" on the part of the system.
Dart recounted the steps he led to overhaul mental-health care at Cook County Jail, where, he said, more than 30 percent of the inmates are severely mentally ill. Among these steps was the establishment of a separate mental-health facility within the jail for inmates"America's Largest Mental Hospital Is a Jail," read the headline of a 2015 article describing Cook County Jail in The Atlanticand outreach efforts for released individuals and their families.
Despite feeling positive about those reforms, though, Dart said other issues pervade the Cook County justice system. Among them is the question of, "When people do get released…what do they have left?" He described a cyclical system, where offenders often know when they leave that they will be back.
Looking at the barriers individuals face upon release, Dart said, "There is almost this notion that we're making it sure that they can't get jobs. ... We've got to stop putting the hurdles up."