Chicago's full jail shows court reform needed

A 17-year-old picked up by suburban police is charged with attempted residential burglary. A week later, the same policemen arrest the same youth, who is charged with another burglary.

He was one of scores being released each day from the Cook County Jail, without bail, due to a US court order limiting jail overcrowding.

This problem has underscored the need for changes in what is considered to be the nation's largest unified court system.

The jail crisis has coincided with release of the final report of a blue-ribbon commission on needed reforms to prevent corruption, some of which are also aimed at reducing the county court system's backlog.

In the past year or two, jail stays have tripled to an average of about 140 days, says director Spencer Leak, due partly to increased arrests and changes in laws that increase court delays. Judges report an increase in court cases too far above recommended judicial workloads, and police say the jail releases are contributing to an increase in Chicago gang violence this year.

``When you're arresting the same people two or three times, you are just doing your work two or three times,'' says Chicago Police Superintendant LeRoy Martin. Increased gang arrests, he says, have contributed to the pressure on the jail. ``I need somewhere to separate these people from society.''

Mr. Leak and others want the jail stays shortened by increasing the number of courts and the screening of narcotics cases before trial. Proposals also include more funds for probation programs and improvements in the bail system to monitor potentially dangerous inmates.

For example, a new $60 million jail building with 750 beds has been proposed, along with short-term measures such as the use of electronic monitoring bracelets on released prisoners, small, temporary jails near the current structure, and the use of private facilities to house prisoners in work-release programs.

But Michael Mahoney, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, warns that ``if we had 750 more beds today, we could stop the release program for two weeks and then would have to reinstitute it again. Longer-term changes are needed.''

In the past, Mr. Mahoney says, local officials failed to make such changes despite a long-standing federal court order that restricts overcrowding at the Cook County Jail.

Some of the anti-corruption reforms proposed by the blue-ribbon panel relate to reducing court backlog, though they are mainly a response to Operation Greylord.

That federal probe led to the conviction of 41 lawyers, 11 judges, and 21 court-related staff, according to the commission, which has recommended about 200 reforms across four years, only about 70 of which have been adopted so far. Recommendations include a call for an ongoing, active presence in courts here by state and county investigators, and ``merit selection'' of judges, rather than judicial elections, to take politics out of the courts. Opponents have criticized ``merit selection'' for reducing public input into judicial selections.

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