Friday, November 4, 2011

Katy Welter: Smart Criminal Justice Policies Gain Momentum in Chicago's Cook County

Katy Welter: Smart Criminal Justice Policies Gain Momentum in Chicago's Cook County

"County and city officials have taken bold yet prudent steps toward sensible, cost-effective public safety policies. The county has expanded use of electronic monitoring and the city is now considering issuing a fine in lieu of arrest for marijuana possession -- a move many suburbs have already made.

Both plans aim to relieve the mounting fiscal, political, and humanitarian costs imposed by crowded jails and overburdened police and courts. They also represent incremental steps toward fundamental, systemic reform.

These policy changes will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. The Chicago Reader recently reported that city and county officers made approximately 28,000 arrests for marijuana possession last year.

The vast majority of these cases were ultimately dismissed, but not before racking up the substantial processing costs of paperwork and preliminary court hearings. In the case of felony arrests, many defendants who are unable to meet even modest bail requirements spend days or weeks in the county's notoriously crowded jail only to have their cases dismissed.

Electronic monitoring provides a cost-effective alternative to imprisoning a non-violent defendants while their case is pending in court. Offenders wear GPS devices that ensure high rates of compliance and safety.

Since 2009, the county has increased the number of defendants on EM from fewer than 100 to 865 today. That number is now scheduled to jump since County Board President Preckwinkle awarded Sheriff Dart $1 million in October for expansion of the EM program. This is money well spent. EM costs about $65 a day -- less than half of the daily cost to confine someone in Cook County Jail.

Taking a different approach to excessive criminal justice costs, Chicago's City Council this week will consider reducing the penalty for possession small amounts of marijuana possession. Under the proposal, individuals caught with 10 grams (approximately 1/3 of an ounce) or less will be fined $200. Presently, possession of 10 grams or less is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail."

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