Reducing inmates, saving money – plans for America’s largest jail

Electronic monitoring get out of jail freeThe Cook County jail is currently the largest single-site jail in the nation. (Jails, as opposed to prisons, house inmates sentenced to less than a year imprisonment or who are awaiting trial, which can last for multiple years.) The Cook County jail can house nearly 10,000 inmates at a time and holds about 100,000 annually. (Interestingly, I learned on a recent tour of the jail that it also operates the state’s largest mental-health facility, just for inmates.)

Running a jail that big is very expensive; not to mention that overcrowding increases the risk of bad conditions and violence. Cook County Board of Commissioners president Toni Preckwinkle says the cost is $143 per inmate per day. With nearly 10,000 inmates, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars. Preckwinkle wants to cut the cost, as reported by the New York Times:

She set a goal of reducing the average daily population at the jail from about 8,500 to 7,500 in the next fiscal year [2012], which begins Dec. 1, to save about $5 million.

That’s a pretty ambitious goal for a county to take on.

The county can’t rewrite the criminal laws; nor does it generally choose who to prosecute. Those decisions are left to the state and federal government. But the county does get to choose how it restrains people: a spokesman for the county sheriff says they are working to enhance their approach to electronic monitoring, particularly for nonviolent first-time offenders. Apparently 70% of the jail’s inmates are there for nonviolent crimes, and Preckwinkle wants to see more of those people put on electronic monitoring rather than incarcerated. Chicago estimates the cost of home surveillance is $65 per day, so it seems like a good plan. (I’ve seen estimates that electronic surveillance can cost as little as $5 per day.) The cost can even be charged to offenders, who, in most cases, would be glad to pay $65 for a get-out-of-jail card.

This seems like a great idea to me, and one that highlights the potential for municipalities to help solve problems that the state and federal government can’t seem to figure out. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. This costs us more than just the price of housing inmates: inmates bring hundreds of civil-rights cases a year against prison officials for constitutional violations (some caused by overcrowding), which add cost to the state and federal government and, of course, human potential is wasted. But no politician wants to be the one to let off more criminals, so there is a lack of support for reforming our prison system. Preckwinkle’s plan makes sense; it targets those awaiting trial (people aren’t getting off too easy in the end), and those who are the least likely to be a risk to society.

What are your thoughts?

2 Replies to “Reducing inmates, saving money – plans for America’s largest jail”

  1. Great post! But with more offenders out on the street, won’t unemployment numbers go up? Since those incarcerated are amongst the least likely to be employed or even employable, wouldn’t a good jobs plan be expansion of the Cook County Jail?

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Don. I don’t think Cook County necessarily has to run a jobs program. Since most of the offenders they’ll be putting on electronic monitoring are awaiting trial, their release will only be only temporary, and as far as I understand, many people on electronic monitoring are allowed to continue going to work (if they had a job beforehand).

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