Why is the Cook County Jail population rising?

More people were locked inside the Cook County Jail on Thursday than at any point since March, according to an Injustice Watch analysis.

The number of people in the jail reached a low of about 4,000 in May, after prosecutors and judges took steps to reduce the jail population in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had spread rapidly through the jail in March and April.

But since early May, the population has been steadily increasing, and this week the number of people incarcerated at the jail surpassed 4,800, according to data published by the Sheriff’s office.

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We crunched the data and spoke with corrections officials and experts, who pointed to several potential explanations for the rising jail population. While it is typical for the jail population to rise in the summer months, as crime and arrests increase, we also found that policing strategy and policies aimed at containing the virus in the prisons and courts may be responsible.

More arrests on gun charges

An analysis of Chicago Police Department arrest data shows that the number of arrests is up somewhat from April, when they hit their lowest point in at least five years. But arrests are still down considerably from pre-pandemic levels, with one exception: arrests for gun charges.

Both May and June saw more than 500 arrests where the primary charge was a weapons-related offense, which was higher than any month since at least January 2014, according to our analysis.

Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown has emphasized making more gun arrests as part of his strategy to stem shootings, which the police department says are up 45% compared to the same time last year.

Ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend, Brown said police would be making drug and gun arrests, which he said are “the precursors to violence in Chicago,” and pleaded with judges and prosecutors to “keep them in jail over the weekend,” according to a WBEZ transcript of his remarks, which received condemnation from some civil rights advocates.

Although Brown claimed that too many people arrested for gun possession are released on electronic monitoring, data from the sheriff’s office and state’s attorney’s office suggest that many of them are, in fact, being held in the jail.

About two-thirds of people arrested on gun charges since March 1 had to pay cash to get out of jail, according to our analysis of state’s attorney’s office data. The average bond was almost $34,000, meaning a person would need $3,400 to be released.

Data from the sheriff’s office show that nearly 25% of people who were booked into the jail since March and were still there on Tuesday had been arrested on a gun charge.

“It’s predictable that the jail population has increased,” said Sharone Mitchell, director of the Illinois Justice Project, a criminal justice reform group. “We’re operating under the model that arresting more people with gun possession will make us safer. And that’s a model that mayor after mayor, superintendent after superintendent, have followed.”

Pritzker’s prison transfer ban

On March 26, Governor J.B. Pritzker banned all transfers from county jails to the state’s prisons. The policy means that anyone who would usually be sent to prison, whether for a parole violation or a new prison sentence, must stay in jail. There are currently 446 people who fit this description in the Cook County Jail, up from 139 in mid-May, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has joined the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, a professional organization for sheriffs’ workers in Illinois, in filing a lawsuit against Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Corrections to lift the ban on transfers.

The ban hasn’t stopped COVID-19 from entering the state’s prisons. As of Friday, more than 200 staff members and 330 incarcerated people in state prisons had contracted the virus, according to the IDOC website.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention credited jail officials for their early implementation of social distancing and other policies aimed at containing the virus, but, in a press conference Wednesday, Dart noted that maintaining those efforts will grow more difficult as the jail population rises.

“We have an entire building of people that aren’t supposed to be here,” Dart said in the press conference, referring to the people awaiting transfer to state prisons.

An IDOC spokesperson told Injustice Watch that the agency “remains focused” on protecting staff and prisoners from coronavirus, but declined to comment further because of the ongoing lawsuit. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Suspended bond reform measures

Another possible factor in the rising jail population is Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans’s emergency court order, which put most court hearings on hold due to the pandemic, according to Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. In addition to stopping jury trials and other “non-essential” court hearings, the order paused automatic bond review hearings for those who cannot post their original bond within a week.

This automatic bond review was part of a broader suite of bond reforms that Evans implemented in 2017, which his office credited with reducing the jail population from nearly 7,500 to less than 6,000 by the end of 2018.

“Sometimes, someone says ‘I have $10,000’ [in the initial bond hearing] because they think their grandma has $10,000, then they go and talk to grandma, and grandma is like, ‘No I don’t, I have $5,000,’” Staudt said.

There are nearly 1,000 people held in the jail simply because they can’t afford their bond, according to an analysis of jail data conducted by Staudt.

Mary Wisniewski, a spokesperson for Evans, told Injustice Watch that judges are holding bond reviews when a defendant requests one. She said there is “no difference” in how they are interpreting the bond reform policy, but she did not immediately respond to questions about whether the automatic bond reviews are still occurring.

Reversing unprecedented jail decarceration

In March and April, activists and defense attorneys pushed for a mass release of those locked in the jail, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Judges conducted emergency bond reviews, and the jail population dropped by more than 1,600. More recently, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has directed her prosecutors to drop charges for low-level drug crimes and some protest-related offenses.

“During the early days of the pandemic, you had a real priority among lots of stakeholders to reduce the jail population,” Mitchell said. “That clearly contributed to the drop [in the jail population]. And over time that priority has become weaker and people start reverting to the norm.”

Staudt says that all of the different players in the criminal justice system should be taken into account when thinking about how to keep the jail population down. Even policies that come from one office, like the suspension of automatic second bond hearings, have downstream effects and require attention from other agencies.

“You sort of have to have a system-wide view to see where the problem is,” Staudt said.

Steve Garrison contributed reporting.