Downsizing jail not guaranteed to save money

March 9, 2010 4:42:47 AM PST
The downsizing at the Cook County Jail could trigger a ripple effect in the criminal justice system. A drop in the jail population was the reason for closing several jail buildings. But the move may not be a money-saver.

As the Cook Co. Jail's inmate population fell nearly 20 percent in the past six years, the sheriff credits a drop in crime in the city and the fact that Chicago police are arresting fewer suspects.

But on Monday, the police superintendent said taxpayers should not expect to pay less for officers because there's less crime.

"A lot of time, you have to ask why is crime down. One of the things that helps prevent crime is prevention, and prevention often takes place when we have a strong show of force in a particular area," Weis said.

Last Thursday, Sheriff Tom Dart announced that two divisions of the sprawling 26th Street jail complex would be closed because there are not enough criminal suspects to fill the cellblocks at a cost of $117 a day per inmate.

In fact, the jail's population from its 2004 highpoint, a daily average of more than 11,000 inmates, has fallen to this year's average of 8,600.

"Taxpayers are going to be saving a lot of money," Dart said.

But the most savings Dart could promise taxpayers is only $15 million. A sheriff's spokesman says the jail was already so understaffed, even with the drop in population, it still cannot layoff correctional officers without violating a standing federal court order.

Meanwhile, with room to spare at the state prison system's largest feeder jail, there should be an impact on the Illinois Department of Corrections.

"We would hope that means that the state system would have fewer people inside it, as well," said Diane Williams of the Safer Foundation.

Williams does not predict any taxpayer relief at the state level. She wants the savings there committed to crime prevention programs.

"If we want to maintain that decrease, and realize an even greater decrease, we have to reinvest," said Williams.

County board president candidate Toni Preckwinkle wants to keep the number of county jail inmates on the decline.

"If we can put people in alternative programs, diversion programs before trial and sentencing, and alternate sentencing afterwards, we not only give people the chance to turn their lives around but we can save the taxpayers a lot of money," Preckwinkle said.

A states attorney's spokeswoman told ABC7 Chicago that diversionary programs are keeping more people out of jail but that caseloads have not fallen. The spokesperson also said Cook County prosecutors are as busy as ever.