Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart spoke at a press conference about people arrested for minor offenses sitting in jail for months awaiting trial. Sheriff Dart said some good things in the article: “…the system is “not set up to care” about detainees in jail on minor offenses who sometimes wait for months as their cases wind their way through the court system.” “The culprit, Dart said, is a system that rewards “benign neglect” rather than actively looking for ways to get low-level defendants out of jail—leading not just to mass incarceration but “unjust incarceration.”
As reported by the RedEye, the typical detainee in Cook County Jail is a Black man in his 30s, and it costs $143/day to detain someone. I applaud efforts to decrease the number of people in jails and prisons, but Sheriff Dart also emphasized things I feel are very problematic. “One man spent 114 days in jail, which the sheriff’s office runs, allegedly for stealing packs of Snickers bars—at a cost to taxpayers of more than $16,000, according to Dart, who used the case as one example of “the outrageous amounts of money we spend incarcerating the wrong people.” This phrase, along with the following, “The culprit, Dart said, is a system that rewards “benign neglect” rather than actively looking for ways to get low-level defendants out of jail—leading not just to mass incarceration but “unjust incarceration,” sets up a dichotomy of “good” and “bad” or maybe more accurately “not so bad” and “really bad” people. We can’t limit our resistance against mass incarceration to just advocating for the good or not so bad people to be released from jails and prisons. That will not upend this inherently unjust system; it will just create different classes of people, all still entangled in the criminal legal system.
Sheriff Dart also stated that he has plans to introduce legislation that will give the county 30 days to work out cases of minor theft and criminal trespassing, and he also wants to create a diversion program for mentally ill defendants. In the former legislation, if the cases are not resolved in 30 days, then people will be released of their own recognizance or on electronic monitoring. While I do think that would be a very small step in the right direction, I’m not for giving more money to the criminal legal system to keep people on surveillance or to create a diversion program.
Instead of starting solutions at the point where people are already jailed, how about solutions that prevent people from being arrested in the first place? Decriminalize theft and criminal trespassing, along with drugs, sex work and a whole host of other behaviors that shouldn’t be criminalized, so that people are not put through the trauma of an arrest. For people who are concerned with the costs of jailing people, there goes the savings right there; no crime, means no arrest, which means a need for less police, resulting in less people jailed. The Mental Health Movement has been organizing to demand Mayor Rahm Emanuel reopen the mental health clinics that he closed in 2012, opening two clinics per year, at a cost of only three cents per month. Putting money towards that, instead of a diversion program that still relies on people being arrested before they can access services, is a much better use of resources.