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A Year in Review: Unjust Incarceration by the Numbers

In March 2015, Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart announced a campaign to take on the system that actively facilitates the unjust incarceration of the mentally ill and poor in Cook County. He implored the public and criminal justice stakeholders to imagine the reality of being stuck in the revolving door of this broken system and to join him in his fight for a more thoughtful approach.

Sheriff Dart’s campaign crested in August when his proposal of a pilot program known as the “Rocket Docket” officially became law. The Rocket Docket ensures that non-violent 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 or be released from the jail pending their trial.

While the Rocket Docket represents a local breakthrough and potentially a national model, unjust incarceration of the mentally ill and poor remains at a crisis point in Cook County. Too many people continue to be incarcerated pre-trial, for far too long. Through the efforts of many, we have ended overcrowding in all divisions except for the hospital division for the mentally ill. Whether viewed cumulatively or as a snapshot in time, the numbers clearly reflect an urgent need for additional reform:

  • On Christmas Day, approximately 8,300 people will be incarcerated in Cook County Jail
    • About 7,700 of these inmates (93%) are awaiting trial, meaning they have been charged but not convicted of a crime
    • 550 (7%) are charged solely with misdemeanors.
  • In 2015, there were approximately 70,000 admissions to the Cook County Jail with about 2,200 of these admissions spending all of 2015 incarcerated pre-trial at the Cook County Jail.
  • In addition, 8,700 people spent time incarcerated in Cook County Jail despite eventually having their charges dropped entirely
  • Approximately 1,019 people were “state turnarounds” – meaning they were convicted of their charge and sentenced to state prison but spent so much time incarcerated pre-trial at Cook County Jail that their sentence had already been served
  • Of those turnarounds, many during their pre-trial incarceration served what turned out to be “dead days” (additional days) beyond their eventual sentence
  • The total 2015 “dead days” combined to 79,726 days (or 218 years) of unnecessary incarceration beyond their ultimate prison sentences
  • In 2015, 10 babies were born to mothers during their incarceration at Cook County Jail

In addition to incarceration itself, each admission to Cook County Jail triggers an assembly line of daily accommodations – food, medication, sanitary supplies, laundry, transportation, etc. This has critical ramifications for the Cook County taxpayers asked to subsidize the costs of running Cook County Jail as well as the 4,000 jail employees who work every day to keep this 24/7 operation running smoothly. In 2015…

  • Food
    • 10 million meals produced
    • 150 semi truckloads of milk
    • 100 semi truckloads of bread
    • 500 tons of meat
    • 250 tons of vegetables
    • 15 semi truckloads of chips
  • Supplies
    • 559,000 bars of soap
    • 83,000 pairs of shoes
    • 2.1 million pounds of laundry
    • 591,000 rolls of toilet paper
    • 142,000 toothbrushes
    • 983,000 packs of toothpaste
    • 587,500 garbage bags
  • Transportation
    • 17,500 people transported from Cook County Jail to state prisons
    • 5,840 busses dispatched to transport pre-trial inmates to suburban courthouses for case hearings, logging 120,500 miles
    • 1,300 emergency ambulance runs to Stroger Hospital for inmates with medical conditions
  • Healthcare
    • 6.5 million doses of medications dispensed
    • 18,000 dental visits
    • 37,000 primary care visits
    • 14,800 psychiatric visits

“As the national discourse evolves towards a smarter approach to criminal justice, I’m gratified that the public is becoming increasingly cognizant of the unjust incarceration of the mentally ill and poor,” said Sheriff Dart. “Cook County can and should serve as an example for the rest of the country in 2016, and that starts with moving towards a humane and fiscally prudent approach to this critical issue.”


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