‘Rocket Docket’ says jail is for the dangerous, not the poor

Should Cook County Jail be a holding pen for poor defendants charged with low-level offenses whose record over the last decade suggests they pose no risk to society?

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart thinks not, and that philosophy drove his successful push last year to enact “Rocket Docket” legislation – as well his current laudable effort to expand the Cook-County-only law further this year.

Under the current version of the measure, some accused shoplifters and trespassers with no violent crime convictions in the previous 10 years must be tried within 30 days or released from jail – on their own recognizance or under electronic monitoring – pending trial.

Dart’s new version of the law would expand provisions for speedy trial or release to low-level drug suspects caught with personal-use amounts of drugs and to some alleged traffic offenders.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez supported the last bill and so far has raised no objection to the new one. With lead sponsorship from State Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside), the “Accelerated Resolution Program Act” passed the Illinois House this month and now awaits debate in the Senate.

The release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video late last year has intensified the spotlight on a criminal justice system in desperate need of reform. That system includes troubling long times that a defendant typically must await trial, often jailed the whole while. Dart’s latest “Rocket Docket” bill would add greater fairness and even-handedness.

In this country, defendants are innocent until proven guilty. The Accelerated Resolution Program Act would allow carefully vetted defendants to continue to work or raise a family or go to school while awaiting trial for lower-level offenses. They could, in other words, contribute to society pending trial instead of costing taxpayers $143 a day at the Cook County Jail.

The bill also would allow released, economically-strapped defendants to more fully participate in their defense, just as more affluent ones who post bond on the same charges now are able to do.

“Whether you wind up in jail shouldn’t depend on your zip code,’’ says Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer.

Smith says the latest bill would help the Cook County Jail further revert to its primary purpose: holding defendants charged with violent offenses or those whose presence poses a danger to the community.

Thus far, the required vetting process by the Sheriff’s Office and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has been so stringent that only 13 percent of those with qualifying crimes have been recommended for release since the original law was enacted last Aug. 21, Smith says. Even fewer have actually been released.

One big side benefit to that vetting process has been a remarkable collaboration between Dart’s and Alvarez’s offices, Smith said. Top officials of both offices are now carefully discussing some of the lowest-level crimes in the system at least weekly, she said.

Imagine: top criminal justice folks talking about perhaps some of the jail’s poorest and perhaps most redeemable inmates, instead of just the big “heater” cases.

That sounds like progress to us.

The current bill could translate into far more work for Dart’s office. Smith estimates the number of vetted cases could jump sevenfold under the new law. But she predicts no increase in Sheriff manpower to tackle the added responsibility.

“This is what we exist to do — to improve this system,” Smith said. “We feel strongly that this bill is one of the tools that gets us there.”