‘Rocket Docket’ Sends Low-Level Jail Inmates Home

A Cook County woman once spent 221 days in Cook County Jail on minor charges for stealing fruit and candy because she was pregnant and hungry.

A 51-year-old man spent 10 months in jail awaiting trial for allegedly stealing toothpaste.

Those are just a couple of the cases the Cook County Sheriff's Office cites in making the case for the new Accelerated Resolution Court, a court where defendants awaiting trial on minor, non-violent crimes can be released from jail much sooner.

The law has been in effect for five months now. Brandis Friedman takes a look at how it's working so far.

TRANSCRIPT

Brandis Friedman: Dorm four in division two of the Cook County Jail houses about 680 inmates at any given time.

Chiaka: I’d rather be at home.

BF: Men are held here before trial on non-violent charges like theft, trespassing, drugs or driving on a suspended license.

Marek: Bad food. Bad people sometimes—the fighting. No heat. It's terrible.

BF: Though their charges are rated low-level, their bonds often are not.

BF: How much is your bond?

Chiaka: $1,000.

BF: For stealing allegedly ...?MarekMarek

Chiaka: $65.

BF: What is your bond?

Bryan: $400.

BF: And what are you in here for?

Bryan: For retail theft for under $300.

Terrence: To be exact, $56.

BF: What is your bond?

Terrence: $10,000.

BF: And how long have you been here?

Terrence: Approximately two months.

BF: When we met him, 33-year-old Marek, who's originally from Poland, had been here for six weeks.

He's charged with retail theft, accused of stealing $94 worth of merchandise. His bond is set at $7,500.

Marek: This is not the first time, that's why maybe.

BF: Have you been here before?

Marek: Yes, six times.

BF: Stories like his inspired Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to find a way to send some of these defendants home.

Tom DartTom Dart Tom Dart: I was walking through the division, I was talking with detainees, and for the one-millionth time, I heard from a detainee who I felt strongly--and given my background as a former prosecutor, I know a couple of things--had no reason being in my custody. And I was beyond puzzled as to what was this person still doing in my custody.

BF: Dart began working with legislators in Springfield to create the Accelerated Resolution Court, or rocket docket.

It's a two-year pilot program designed to release inmates jailed on low-level offenses.

To be eligible, defendants must have no violent criminal convictions in their background.

They must be charged with either retail theft for less than $300 or criminal trespassing.

Under the new rocket docket law, if their cases aren't disposed of within 30 days, a judge can release them on either electronic monitoring with conditions or on their own recognizance.

TD: We were formerly locking people up because they were poor. They weren’t being held here because their crime was serious. They weren’t being held here because there was this rather detailed intricate trial that was going on. They’re being held here because they couldn’t make a bond that was so insignificant to most everyone out there. But because they came into us destitute—they were homeless—they couldn't make any bond, if it was $10 or $10 million, they couldn't make it.

A case would proceed, we're not saying all the cases are being thrown out but that we're just not gonna lock people up for being poor.

BF: The sheriff's office says so far 67 inmates have been referred to the rocket docket.

Twenty-seven are awaiting background checks or court hearings, and 40 have been released since Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the law near the end of last summer.

Jenny Vollen, executive director of the John Howard Association, says jailing those accused of low-level crimes who're unable to pay bond must be weighed against the costs.

Jenny VollenJenny Vollen Jenny Vollen: We know that the likelihood of prison is higher when someone has been detained in jail pending resolution of their case, so in and of itself that makes it a good reason to keep people out of jail.

BF: And taxpayers are footing the $143 a day cost of jailing an inmate.

JV: The jail system is a very expensive way to take care of people, and frequently the Cook County Jail in particular is filled with people who are there more because they are mentally ill or homeless and less because they're dangerous or a threat to public safety. That's not ideal policy. These people need help. They don't need to be in jail.

BF: For some, like Marek, by the time they're released from jail, they may have lost their jobs and their homes.

Marek: Probably if I leave, I go to the shelter. Yeah, I got family but, sometimes, she don't want to talk to me because, you know.

BF: So you can’t go to them?

Marek: Yeah, because I've been six times. Everybody tell me don't do it, but you know, I do it because the drugs. That's why you know.

BF: Have you gotten any of the help you need for drugs?

Marek: No.

BF: Marek says he wants to be better whenever he is released.

Marek: I know that 100 percent, I do no more theft, no more.

BF: Dart says his office works to help inmates get treatment for drugs and mental illness when they leave jail.

Eventually, he hopes the court will add more charges to the list of those eligible and have inmates released in fewer than 30 days.

For "Chicago Tonight," I'm Brandis Friedman.

Follow Brandis Friedman on Twitter: @BrandisFriedman


Though the program is considered a pilot, Sheriff Dart says he intends to keep going at the end of those two years, and is still researching which other charges could be included.


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