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Judge tells sheriff to boost jail releases - for now

Saturday, August 30, 2008
Daily Herald

Well, that didn't go quite as Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart had hoped.

The sheriff had filed an emergency motion for a hearing Friday to demand that a federal judge appoint a monitor to make bond decisions at Cook County jail after judges there mysteriously stopped issuing all recognizance bonds for more than a week.

Instead, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall ordered Dart to immediately begin using his power to release inmates on electronic monitoring - the very thing Dart was trying to avoid.

Although Dart didn't come out and say it in his motion, it was clear he was insinuating that the Cook County judiciary was on strike in regards to the so-called "I-bonds." Normally 5 to 20 of the bonds are issued daily at the courthouse at 26th and California, and rarely does a day pass with none being issued. Never, said Sheriff's attorney Dan Gallagher, have eight straight days passed without an I-bond.

The insinuation is that Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans or other judges at 26th and California, ordered the strike as part of Evans' ongoing fight with Dart over who should handle the job of deciding which inmates get released to avoid overcrowding.

In the eight days from Aug. 17 to Aug. 25, even minor marijuana possessors with no criminal background were ordered held on cash bonds, a rarity for the system.

"I refuse to believe that there's judges (who) would use these cases as a pawn in this fight," said Kendall, in a tone of voice that seemed almost as much an admonishment of the Cook County judges as a declaration she didn't believe it. In the absence of any "specific evidence" of such a conspiracy, though, she said, "let's assume that this is an anomaly."

The result, she said, was the same: The practice means more people are in the jail heading into the Labor Day weekend, when numbers at the jail typically rise.

Dart maintains he should not be the one making the decision to release inmates because he doesn't have full criminal histories, testimony or police reports at his disposal when he makes that call - possibly setting up a situation where he will unwittingly release a violent offender.

He, too, has sharply curbed the number of inmates he releases on electronic monitoring in the past few months, down from 1,576 a month in 2005 to about 400 a month in the first six months of this year. The judges' sudden failure to issue any I-bonds seemed to correspond with continuing drops on Dart's part: about 350 per month for the last two months.

While Kendall stressed she didn't have authority to order judges to issue I-bonds or revisit their bond decisions, she did have authority, under a federal consent decree, to tell the sheriff to exercise his power to release more inmates on electronic monitoring.

Gallagher objected, noting the order amounted to the executive branch being able to overrule the bond decisions of judges. Kendall disagreed, noting that electronic monitoring was still a form of incarceration, and simply amounted to telling the sheriff to exercise his full array of choices.

But, there was some indication Dart may eventually get what he wants.

Kendall ordered plaintiffs' attorneys in the case, who represent inmates, to propose a solution akin to what the sheriff requested: beefing up pretrial detainee services so that judges have the staffing and information to intelligently release more inmates.

"This (increasing sheriff's electronic monitoring releases) is not a permanent solution," said Kendall. "It must include at some point an effective pretrial services department."

While that wouldn't force Cook County judges to release more inmates, it would certainly ratchet up the pressure, because pretrial services staffers currently report to Evans.

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