Reforming Cook County bail system may have side benefit: lower cost

Jail Division 11

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Cook County Jail’s Division 11

As officials ponder how to release more people sitting in Cook County Jail who are charged with nonviolent crimes, two questions arise:

What will it cost, and where will the money come from?

Already, the Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge’s office has warned that staff and funding shortages are overwhelming the court’s pretrial services department, which is responsible for helping ensure that people facing trial both stay out of trouble and show up for their court dates.

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But there is some good news from other parts of the country, an Injustice Watch survey found: Many places are finding they save millions of dollars by reducing their jail population, more than offsetting the cost of additional pretrial services.

A 2010 analysis of Broward County, Fla. found that the cost of providing pretrial services to a defendant was $1.48 per day. That is sharply lower than the $107.71 per day officials estimate it costs to house an inmate in the jail, which swallows a whopping 25 cents of every tax dollar spent in Broward County. While expenses for the county’s pretrial program increased by $3.3 million and the number of cases it handled nearly tripled between 2005 and 2010, jail expenses went down by nearly $6.5 million.

Similarly, a 2013 Union County, N.J. study revealed that after efforts to combat jail overcrowding reduced the daily jail population from 1,017 in 2011 to 796 in 2013, annual expenditures fell by $2.2 million. New Jersey’s Administrative Office of the Courts estimates it spends roughly $100 daily on each inmate it detains pretrial. As of 2015, $21.3 million has been budgeted to establish a pretrial services program statewide.

Substantial cost savings have also been reported in Washington, D.C.; in Kentucky; in Santa Clara, Calif.; and in several other jurisdictions that have enacted bail reforms.

The issue is relevant as Cook County grapples with easing a jail population that has been overwhelmingly filled with people who are unable to post the bail required to win pretrial release — many of whom face nonviolent charges.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has been among those seeking reforms, this week joined a growing chorus that seeks to end the system of requiring that cash be commonly required by defendants who seek to be released after arrest. On Thursday, county commissioners will hold a public hearing on reform.

An Injustice Watch examination in October of the bail system reported that efforts by Cook County officials to release more pretrial defendants have faced a number of obstacles. The jail is filled with thousands of people each day who have not been convicted of anything but remain locked up because they cannot post the required bond, regardless of whether they pose any danger.

The judges who set bond, as well as Dart, were sued last month by two inmates who contend it violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for people to be held in custody before trial only because they are too poor to afford bail.

Dart, Public Defender Amy Campanelli and others pushing for reform assert that people who pose no danger should not be held unless and until they can raise the money to pay the bond for their release, and that those who do pose a danger should not be released simply because they have the means.

Jurisdictions that have reformed their bail systems have adopted a range of measures to ensure that suspects stay arrest-free and show up for court. Those released can face a variety of conditions including requirements to receive counseling, submit to drug testing, attend substance-abuse programs and find jobs — all of which require greater supervision. Many jurisdictions have turned to increased use of electronic monitoring, which still requires supervision but is far cheaper per day than detention in jail.

Court systems also find that suspects tend to show up for court with the use of simple — and cheap — techniques like reminders before their court date. Santa Clara County uses an automated text-message system for released defendants at a monthly cost to pretrial services of just $250, according to the department.

How much bail reform costs depends on the type of in-house services an agency chooses to offer, said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive officer of the Pretrial Justice Institute. In Washington, the city’s pretrial services department boasts an expansive list of services that include drug testing and behavioral health. In Kentucky and other places, those services are in the hands of separate governmental entities.

As Washington implemented bail reform that now leads to the release of nine in every 10 people awaiting trial, the city’s extensive pretrial services agency added 20 new employees. Funding that many people would be “beyond the wildest dreams” of officials in other places, acknowledged Cliff Keenan, who oversees the department. His team supervises about 4,500 defendants on any given day at a per-person cost of $18 — 91 percent less than the $200 it costs for a night at the D.C. jail.

In Kentucky, where officials have held the line on new spending even as more people are being released before trial, the statewide pretrial services department calculated that it costs just $1.90 per day to release a defendant pretrial — a small fraction of the state’s average $9.90-per-person daily jail cost. “You just find ways to be efficient and cut costs however you can,” said Tara Boh Klute, head of the pretrial agency.

Some of those ways, Klute said, have included adding an automated system that notifies the department within 24 hours when a client has reoffended, and using research to cut the average pretrial interview length from 20 minutes down to five minutes.

As Pretrial Justice Institute’s Burdeen summed up, “It’s like saying, ‘Is buying a car expensive?’ Well, what kind of car? New, used, luxury, economy? There’s lots of different kinds of cars. And so the model process that we try to help jurisdictions do is to do some asset mapping and say, ‘What do we already have in our system that we can redirect or make better use of?’”

In Santa Clara, officials in 2011 began using a new tool designed to help assess the risk defendants pose, based on their past history, in order to prevent the unnecessary detention of nonviolent people. In the first six months after the tool was implemented, the county spent slightly less on pretrial services even as the county saved an estimated $31.3 million in detention costs. A handful of pretrial staff positions were added to manage the increase in people released before trial.

Was it expensive? “Not at all,” said Deputy County Executive Garry Herceg, who directed Santa Clara’s pretrial services from 2010 until this year. “We just had to convert the way we did business.”

Cook County judges this year began using a risk-assessment tool developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the number of people held in custody dropped last weekend below 8,000 for the first time in years. Dart and other advocates contend that far too many people who are not dangerous are being held unnecessarily, many of them in need of mental health services.

But the chief judge’s office contends the system already is underfunded, and that as more people are released and needing supervision, the need for more staff will only grow. Other officials question that need: Lanetta Haynes Turner of the Justice Advisory Council said that while Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has committed to supporting pretrial reforms that include an automated court-date reminder system, officials seek more data from the court to justify requests for additional staff.

As officials debate how much pretrial funding is actually needed, one thing seems clear: The costs come with substantial savings.

“I think pretrial justice is not only feasible, but cost-effective in every place in the country,” Burdeen said. “And I think we are underestimating today what it is costing us to maintain this broken system where low-risk people stay in when they could be out, and high-risk people are getting out when they should stay in.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Sheriff Dart expressed similar optimism. “Would we be able to reduce the population here in the jail quite a bit? Well, absolutely we would,” he said. In a county that spends $385 million a year jailing presumed-innocent defendants, he guessed the population could go down by another 15 to 20 percent — as much as 1,600 people a day. “And the savings there would be tremendous.”