11/03/2011 06:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

Smart Criminal Justice Policies Gain Momentum in Chicago, Cook County

County and city officials have taken bold yet prudent steps toward sensible, cost-effective public safety policies. The county has expanded use of electronic monitoring and the city is now considering issuing a fine in lieu of arrest for marijuana possession -- a move many suburbs have already made.

Both plans aim to relieve the mounting fiscal, political, and humanitarian costs imposed by crowded jails and overburdened police and courts. They also represent incremental steps toward fundamental, systemic reform.

These policy changes will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. The Chicago Reader recently reported that city and county officers made approximately 28,000 arrests for marijuana possession last year.

The vast majority of these cases were ultimately dismissed, but not before racking up the substantial processing costs of paperwork and preliminary court hearings. In the case of felony arrests, many defendants who are unable to meet even modest bail requirements spend days or weeks in the county's notoriously crowded jail only to have their cases dismissed.

Electronic monitoring provides a cost-effective alternative to imprisoning a non-violent defendants while their case is pending in court. Offenders wear GPS devices that ensure high rates of compliance and safety.

Since 2009, the county has increased the number of defendants on EM from fewer than 100 to 865 today. That number is now scheduled to jump since County Board President Preckwinkle awarded Sheriff Dart $1 million in October for expansion of the EM program. This is money well spent. EM costs about $65 a day -- less than half of the daily cost to confine someone in Cook County Jail.

Taking a different approach to excessive criminal justice costs, Chicago's City Council this week will consider reducing the penalty for possession small amounts of marijuana possession. Under the proposal, individuals caught with 10 grams (approximately 1/3 of an ounce) or less will be fined $200. Presently, possession of 10 grams or less is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

While marijuana use is evenly split across races, enforcement is heavily skewed along racial lines in Illinois, according to the state-sponsored Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study.  Another Chicago Reader article affirmed those findings in Chicago:

The ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana possession in Chicago is 15 to 1, according to a Reader analysis of police and court data. And by the time the cases make their way through the court system, the gap widens even further: the ratio among those who plead or are found guilty is 40 to 1.

These arrests and guilty pleas devastate defendants' future job prospects and arguably increase the likelihood that they will engage in criminal activities to support themselves.

Advocates of the marijuana ordinance recognize this disparity and urge policies guided by evidence rather than discretion. They also argue that marijuana users are not a major threat to our communities and decriminalization does not encourage use. In short, marijuana possession does not warrant our current costly enforcement strategies and severe penalties.

Electronic monitoring and marijuana reform are sound steps, but they are steps and not leaps.

A recent New York Times article noted Cook County Board President Preckwinkle's goal of drastically reducing the jail population -- an aim motivated by finances as well as fairness. In the article, Earl Dunlap, who runs the juvenile detention center, addressed the critical need for inter-agency collaboration in order to transform our struggling system:

[Dunlap] warned that reducing the population would require collaboration among Judge Evans, the state's attorney's office, probation officials, the public defender's office and others.

It is, Mr. Dunlap said, 'not just as simple as the president saying she wants the center reduced and the chief judge waving a wand and saying, 'Voilà, it's done.'

In researching Cook County criminal justice over the years, we've arrived at the same conclusion. More than funding or legislation, we need our officials to work toward common goals. A fair, effective and cost-effective system can be achieved through a cooperative effort among city and county administrators. Officials like President Preckwinkle, Sheriff Dart, Chief Judge Evans, Alderman Solis, and Comissioner Fritchey have signaled lately that they're willing to do just that.