More than 100 non-violent, unjustly incarcerated Cook County Jail individuals in custody could now be eligible to fight their cases while living and working within the community as a result of groundbreaking legislation effective immediately.
Senate Bill 202, sponsored by Rep. Mike Zalewski and Sen. Bill Cunningham in partnership with Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, was signed late Friday by Gov. Bruce Rauner. Effective immediately, it creates a two-year pilot program called the Accelerated Resolution Court – or “rocket docket” – in Cook County. There, defendants charged with low-level crimes of survival such as retail theft or criminal trespassing will have their cases disposed of within 30 days from assignment by the presiding judge.
Individuals in custody eligible for the rocket docket must not have any prior conviction for one of a number of violent crimes in the past decade, including murder, criminal sexual assault, armed robbery or any firearm offenses. If the case is not resolved within 30 days, defendants must be released on their own recognizance or electronic monitoring and follow a number of conditions of release that include not leaving the state without court permission and appearing at all court dates.
Sheriff Dart conceived of the Rocket Docket concept after a thorough analysis of Cook County Jail’s population showed an alarming number of individuals in custody unable to pay nominal bonds and languishing in jail for many months despite being charged with low-level, non-violent crimes. The average cost to incarcerate one person at Cook County Jail is $143 per day, typically more than the value of what the retail theft defendants are charged with stealing. The average length of stay in jail among those charged with retail theft who will qualify for the Rocket Docket is 59 days, with the longest serving individual in custody going on 270 days in jail.
Dart launched a national campaign to highlight the destructive effects of “unjust incarceration” among pre-trial individuals in custody and partnered with Rep. Zalewski and Sen. Cunningham to address this crisis legislatively. The new law could help individuals in custody whose cases Sheriff Dart has talked about as part of the campaign, such as a 30-yearold woman who awaited trial for 221 days in jail on minor charges such as stealing two plums and three chocolate bars from a Save-a-Lot because she was pregnant and hungry; or a 51-year-old shoplifter who spent 10 months awaiting trial in jail for minor charges such as stealing toothpaste. There is a 47-year-old man on crutches who has been in Cook County Jail for 47 days now for stealing T-shirts from a Walgreen’s.
With the leadership of Zalewski and Cunningham, the bill passed the Illinois House and Senate by large margins.
“This is a good first step to rethinking how our criminal justice system works to punish and correct unlawful behavior,” said Zalewski, D-Riverside. “We will watch this pilot project closely these next two years and hope to see many people not languish in our jails but get a swift sentence and then the help they need to avoid making the same mistake again.”
“We need to do more in Springfield to ensure dangerous criminals are locked up while those charged with petty offenses aren’t needlessly slowing down the justice system,” said Cunningham, D-Chicago. “Working with Sheriff Dart and Rep. Zalewski, we have put a good framework in place to speed up the process for these low- level crimes that hopefully will present more opportunities to rebalance our system.”
“Today, we moved closer to a criminal justice system that is actually worthy of the name,” said Dart. “This law will help alleviate both the humanitarian and fiscal toll of unjust incarceration, with the guiding principle that jails should be reserved for violent offenders who actually pose threats to society rather than the homeless and mentally ill. I want to thank Rep. Zalewski and Sen. Cunningham for ushering this critically important bill through the legislative process, as well as the governor for signing it into law.”
“I am very proud to have worked with Sheriff Dart on this important initiative, which will help to make our criminal justice system more efficient, cost effective and fair,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said. “I believe that this measure will serve all of these goals by helping to move cases involving low-level offenders to a speedier resolution, which will save taxpayer money and enable us to focus our resources on violent crime and gun violence.”