Chicago Sun-Times: Rauner signs ‘Rocket Docket’ law to reduce some jail stays

By Frank Main

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has been on a crusade this year to keep some accused shoplifters and trespassers from having extended stays behind bars before trial.

Dart recently notched a bipartisan victory in that campaign when Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the so-called “Rocket Docket” bill into law.

At least 100 inmates at the Cook County Jail could take immediate advantage of a program to cut time spent behind bars while awaiting trial on minor trespassing or shoplifting charges. | Sun-Times file photo
At least 100 inmates at the Cook County Jail could take immediate advantage of a program to cut time spent behind bars while awaiting trial on minor trespassing or shoplifting charges. | Chicago Sun-Times file photo

Rep. Mike Zalewski and Sen. Bill Cunningham, both Democrats, were the primary sponsors of the bill envisioned by Dart. Zalewski is from west suburban Riverside and Cunningham is from Chicago.

Rauner signed the bill late Friday, according to Dart’s office. It passed unanimously in the Senate and by a margin of 71-36 in the House.

“This is a good first step to rethinking how our criminal justice system works to punish and correct unlawful behavior,” Zalewski said.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has supported the measure. So has Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, who visited the jail in July.
“These are people who have made mistakes and are looking for ways to move forward,” Cupich said at the time, echoing a similar statement by Pope Francis after he visited a prison in Italy last year.

Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) voted against the legislation.

“I don’t hate the bill,” he said. “I think Sheriff Dart has done a terrific job of highlighting the problem that we are using our jails for mental treatment. But I am not sure we should be releasing those people to the street, either.”

Batinick said he thinks the real issue is that “we underserve the mentally ill in this state.”

The new law creates the Accelerated Resolution Court in Cook County. Under a two-year pilot program, the court will dispose of low-level shoplifting and trespassing cases within 30 days from their assignment by the presiding judge.

More than 100 inmates could immediately take advantage of the court, according to the sheriff’s office, which operates the jail.

Dart has emphasized that the primary reason for the court isn’t to reduce the jail population, which has been below capacity this year. Instead, it’s to give those inmates a chance to work outside the jail while they fight their cases, he has said.

The program is limited to people charged with retail theft of property under $300 or criminal trespassing.

Dart said the inmates who will go before the Accelerated Resolution Court have committed “crimes of survival.” Many are homeless and mentally ill, and have been in jail frequently on such charges, he said.

Defendants eligible for the court can’t have a prior conviction for certain violent crimes over the previous decade. The crimes include murder, sexual assault, armed robbery, kidnapping, arson and offenses involving discharge of a firearm. People eligible for the program are unable to post bond or are ineligible for electronic monitoring because they’re homeless or lack a proper host site.

If their cases aren’t resolved within a month, they must be freed on their own recognizance or placed on electronic monitoring pending the conclusion of their cases.

The judge may require a defendant to refrain from drugs and alcohol; undergo mental treatment; and live in a facility selected by the court.

In a statement Tuesday, Dart said the average cost of keeping an inmate in jail for a day is $143 — more than the value of the goods a shoplifter is typically caught stealing.

The average jail stay for people charged with retail theft is 59 days. One alleged shoplifter has been behind bars for 270 days, according to the sheriff’s office.

Examples of such detainees include a man who has spent 86 days in jail for allegedly stealing five packages of T-shirts from a Walgreens store in May. The 47-year-old man has a history of arrests for retail theft, according to Dart’s office.

Dart said the man has cost taxpayers $12,298.

A 39-year-old man has spent 46 days in jail for allegedly trespassing at a fish restaurant in July. He has a history of criminal trespassing, including at the same restaurant, the sheriff’s office said.

Cara Smith, the chief strategist for the sheriff’s office, said the Rocket Docket program stems from an analysis of the jail population ordered by Dart.

“Low-income people charged with minor offenses spend a shocking number of days in custody,” Smith said the study found.

In the first six months of this year, 590 people in the jail were sentenced for various crimes — from robberies to drug possession to shoplifting — and were immediately freed because they had served more time in jail awaiting trial than the length of the sentence they received. They had spent 44,448 days in jail above what they needed to satisfy their sentences, Smith said.

Smith said other types of offenses — such as drug crimes — could eventually be included on the Rocket Docket, depending on the results of the pilot program.

“We are trying to expedite the process for those people who should not be here,” she said.