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Home > Press Page

Thursday, March 4, 2010 — A 600-bed building at the Cook County Jail is closed and a 300-bed building will soon be closed, as part of a plan to address a shrinking inmate population, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced Thursday.

The moves are believed to be the first time in decades that buildings have been closed because of lack of inmates. Consolidating detainees, shifting personnel and closing the buildings has the potential to save taxpayers as much as $15 million a year. Capacity of the 96-acre jail campus at 26th Street and California Avenue will now be decreased from 10,000 to 9,100. “At a time when every government agency is looking for ways to cut costs and save taxpayer dollars, it makes no sense to keep half-empty buildings operating at full capacity,” Dart said. “I have a duty to operate the jail as responsibly and efficiently as possible. These steps are steps in the right direction and, best of all, they lay a foundation to take even more steps to save even more taxpayer money down the road.”

In 2002, the average daily capacity at the Cook County Jail exceeded 11,000 and many detainees were forced to sleep on the floor or rotate time in bunks with others. Just last month, the population dipped near 8,400. Today, it is around 8,600.

In 2004, almost 106,000 people were processed at the Cook County Jail. Last year, 86,000 people were processed.

In response to those changes, last year Dart worked with jail director Tony Godinez and others to develop an “under capacity” plan. That plan was developed just a few years after they had collaborated on an “over capacity” plan.

Last month, Dart closed one of four dorms that make up Division 2, a 1,860-bed complex made up of minimum and medium male detainees. That freed 600 beds.
Next month, Dart will close Division 3, a 300-bed building.

Women will be moved to Division 4, which is now a 700-bed minimum security men’s division. Those men will be moved to other buildings, but primarily to Division 3-Annex, which has 500 beds and will be home to roughly 400 men identified as being gang-free, along with about 100 U.S. veterans classified as minimum security.

To prepare for any increases in population, Dart said jail staff will keep Division 3 on standby – meaning any of its six pods of 57 beds could be activated as needed, allowing for flexibility if necessary. But the changes likely mean Cook County Jail will no longer be the largest single-site jail in the nation.

The moves will allow the shifting of 175 corrections employees to other posts and alleviate overtime spending. If present populations remain, it will allow for a reduction in the number of officers needed to adequately staff the facility. That could potentially mean saving Cook County $10.5 million in annual salaries and benefits that would come if the county hired 175 new employees instead. There is the potential to save $2 million more a year in overtime costs.

Additionally, county facilities management staff expects nearly $1 million a year in savings through utilities and maintenance costs, while having roughly 1,000 fewer detainees amounts to about $1 million a year in savings on food costs.

All potential cost savings are contingent upon the population remaining in place, with no sudden spikes. With no control over population levels, Dart said it’s possible he could be drawing up another over-capacity plan, if necessary, and any hopes for cost savings could be scuttled by population increases.

These moves come just days after the Cook County Board voted to move forward with plans to settle the Duran Consent Decree, an agreement governing jail conditions which took effect in 1982 after a lawsuit was filed in 1974. It has since hovered over the jail and cost taxpayers millions in attorneys and monitoring costs.

The settlement discussions would find an end brought to the Duran Decree, as well as an older Harrington Decree governing mental health care. In its place, the U.S. Department of Justice would agree to a new set of monitoring standards making the Cook County Sheriff responsible only for corrections issues at the jail. Three other monitors would separately hold the Cook County Health and Hospital System responsible for physical health and mental health, while making the Cook County Board President responsible for facilities issues.
Eliminating attorney costs and making each entity responsible for its own operations, Dart said, is a more responsible approach to identified problems.
The new decree would call for an end to the oversight in 24 to 48 months, but could be eliminated if there are 18 straight months of compliance.

Dart said he believes many of the corrections issues identified as problematic have already been – or are in the process of being – addressed. He expects a quick resolution to the issues if the agreement is approved by the U.S. Attorney General.

Historically, the Cook County Jail has been maligned for cleanliness and capacity issues, both of which have been addressed in recent years. The most obvious change can now be seen with the capacity issues.
Nearly all of the detainees at the jail are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty of their charge. While the population has decreased, there have been no major changes seen in the overall amount of time it takes a person to reach trial.

Additionally, there has been no major change in the number of people being released on electronic monitors by Cook County judges. Though Cook County has 1,500 bracelets waiting to be utilized, judges have placed only about 370 people on EM. Millions more could be saved through a full utilization of the EM program.

Population decreases are believed to be a reflection of an overall drop in crime. Chicago, where a majority of the Cook County Jail detainees come from, has reported decreases in violent crime, property crime and overall crime – a trend seen across the nation, despite the economy.

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