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.
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.
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