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It's Time to Coordinate on Diversion

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In response to growing concern about violent crime and shrinking budgets, public officials have adopted a number of initiatives to prioritize use of scarce resources. And despite an ordinance requiring a cooperative approach to diversion of offenders from jail, these efforts remain isolated. Chicago lacks a comprehensive criminal justice strategy. Instead we perpetuate a system that incarcerates too many people and rehabilitates too few, thus foregoing financial and justice benefits.

Many jurisdictions and departments within Cook County have turned to diversion as an alternative to incarceration. "Diversion" is a broad term for a pragmatic approach to criminal justice resource allocation that prioritizes quality enforcement over quantity. The basic strategy is to tailor the system to two very different types of defendants. Those charged with the least serious offenses are diverted from jail in a safe but cost-effective way. This frees resources to be used for prosecution, incarceration, or intensive treatment of the most serious offenders.

Recognizing that diversion is not only fair but also economical, Cook County Commissioners Earlene Collins and Larry Suffredin sponsored an ordinance creating the "Jail Diversion Program," which the Board passed in March, 2010. The ordinance orders a diversion "Advisory Panel" to establish "a collaborative relationship between the State, the County, local municipalities and local community based mental health and substance abuse disorder service providers with emphasis on mutual goals, shared responsibilities and benefits." With representatives from public safety agencies, mental health providers, and researchers, the panel would be similar to successful groups guiding crime strategy for many major American cities. But to date, the panel has not been convened.

Though no comprehensive diversion advisory panel now exists, public officials do, of course, work together. And recently they have begun to embrace diversion through promising programs described below. However, the promise of diversion will only be realized through a coherent strategy that bridges departmental divisions.

  • Last month, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's office announced several strategies for increasing diversion through Bond Court. Bond amounts directly affect who will await trial in Cook County Jail, and who will be released pending trial. Recognizing Bond Court's pivotal role as in the criminal process, President Preckwinkle commissioned a study of it by the Justice Advisory Council, chaired by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Ann Burke. The report promises to instate a bond review for those defendants who remain in jail solely because they cannot afford low bond or cannot verify a home address.
  • In 2010, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office introduced a deferred prosecution program that has since diverted thousands of defendants arrested for nonviolent crimes. At a public forum to discuss diversion, First Assistant State's Attorney Shauna Boliker recently noted that these diversion programs save the County approximately $12 million each year.
  • Recognizing that jail neither rehabilitates nor deters many offenders, the Cook County Criminal Court has developed four types of problem-solving court calls aimed at offering treatment alternatives. And while specialty courts heard just 902 of approximately 30,000 felony cases filed last year, judges take on these intensive calls without reducing their regular caseloads. Judges also sentenced 1,227 defendants to TASC-supervised drug or mental health treatment in lieu of imprisonment.
  • Finally, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance permitting fines in lieu of arrest for possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana. Chicago Police Superintendent McCarthy, who joined Mayor Emanuel backing the ordinance, explained that each of Chicago's 20,000 marijuana arrests takes a total of eight police hours to process. "That's 2,500 police hours a day that can be diverted back into the neighborhoods," McCarthy said, according to a recent Chicago Reader article on the marijuana ordinance.

These impressive efforts indicate that many key players want to use diversion to improve Cook County's criminal justice system. But major problems persist that cannot be solved through uncoordinated action. One such problem is that in 2010 and 2011 combined, over 20,000 defendants were jailed for an average of 25 days, only to have their cases dropped or dismissed. At an estimated $143 per inmate per day, taxpayers spent over 70 million dollars on cases that went nowhere.

Had it been meeting regularly, an advisory panel like the one mandated by the "Jail Diversion Program" ordinance might have identified and solved this problem and avoided jailing thousands of people. Solving this problem requires cooperation among all stakeholders: police must make arrests of the kind and quality that state's attorneys can prosecute, prosecutors must assess arrests earlier and toss weak cases so that they can focus their efforts on serious crime, bond court judges must detain only defendants who pose a specific threat or flight risk, and criminal court judges must shepherd a speedy case process.

Systemic reform through co-ordination has been effective in other cities. Philadelphia, which shares Chicago's violent crime and budget problems, took on a legacy of an ineffective and unfair justice system. Led by prosecutors and the courts, including the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, public safety leaders have worked together since 2010 to expand and enhance their diversion programs. They've already seen results. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts report found that Philadelphia's coordinated effort has produced a 12 percent decrease in the daily jail population, a 10 percent drop in jail and police costs, faster case processing times, and a dramatic increase in court appearance rates.

In our latest report, Strategies to Enhance and Coordinate Cook County Diversion Programs, we draw on research, data, and interviews to recommend ways to improve diversion in Cook County.

Limited resources and serious crime require us to police, prosecute, and incarcerate selectively and strategically. We have the concepts, we have a capable group of public officials, and we have public and political support. Now it's time to get on the same page.