Relieve overcrowding with more parolees

During his annual Christmas visit to Cook County Jail, the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced a plan to sue the county, calling for greater release of pre-trial detainees to electronic monitoring. The proposal could potentially save on the cost of room and board for inmates, but the plan needs supervision to prevent backlash.

Electronic monitoring consists of fastening a tracking anklet to a nonviolent inmate and sending him or her home to await trial. Jackson’s organization, Rainbow Push Coalition, claims many pre-trial inmates have been held for unreasonable lengths of time—some for years—in lieu of bail they cannot afford, and releasing nonviolent inmates to electronic monitoring would save the overloaded jail system money, allowing certain prisoners a measure of freedom.

Releasing nonviolent inmates who have been awaiting trial for more than a year and who cannot afford bail is a fair standard for adding parolees to electronic monitoring. Paroling more inmates could save the jail money and ease problems caused by overcrowding. Cook County Jail currently holds approximately 9,351 inmates daily at $143 per person, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s office. The electronic monitoring program currently oversees approximately 1,618 parolees daily at $73 per person, according to the Sheriff’s office, a difference of $70.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has placed blame on the Cook County Circuit Court judges for not ordering enough electronic monitoring, but Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans claims judges release a proportional number of detainees and the rest falls to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, according to a Dec. 20 statement from Evans’ office.

Despite disagreement on whose responsibility it is, most public officers seem to be on board with the idea, although some community members remain skeptical. Some argue that releasing inmates to electronic monitoring could encourage crime in already crime-plagued communities, as Ballard J. Powell, a former supervisor at Stateville Correctional Center, wrote in a Dec. 16 Chicago Tribune letter to the editor.

This argument, while understandable, is alarmist and shortsighted. Imprisoning more people for the length of their sentence without chance for electronic parole does not address the fundamental reasons for endemic crime in Chicago. Nonetheless, even nonviolent criminals have the potential to engage in illegal activities such as drug-trafficking when kept on a longer leash.

Additional policing, which the city is planning, could help control nonviolent crime. Funding for crime prevention could even come from the money the system saves on inmate housing.

The Cook County justice administration needs to coordinate its decisions and put aside blaming one another to solve overcrowding problems. Jackson’s solution is reasonable and is supported by financial logic, and if the county reinvests the money to solve the root causes of crime, the system may improve itself over time.