Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart spoke on criminal justice reform at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center downtown on Monday evening as part of the Social Impact Leadership Series, hosted by the Booth School of Business’s Social Enterprise Initiative.
Dart, a former state prosecutor and Illinois state senator, has served as Cook County sheriff since 2007 and oversees the second-largest sheriff’s department in the United States. He was named to Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in 2009.
Dart said that he sees his job as advocating for people trapped within the criminal justice system, which he described as “targeting, not by design, large swaths of our community.” He added that although “the sheriff’s traditional job is quite proscribed and very narrow…you really do have this incredible mandate if you choose to do it.” Dart’s tenure as sheriff has included several projects that use data to reduce violent crime and improve transparency within Cook County’s criminal justice system.
Among the most recent of these projects is the Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort (SAVE), launched in June 2016. SAVE identifies 18- to 24-year-old men from the top 15 most violent zip codes in Cook County. The identified men then participate in a program eight hours per day, four days per week, that incorporates lessons in cognitive development, life skills, anger management, and parenting.
According to Dart, of the 80 participants who have so far completed the program, only one has since been charged with a crime, an unarmed robbery—results Dart called “ridiculous” given crime statistics from violent neighborhoods.
The program has also sparked an initiative for daycare centers operated by outside organizations at Cook County jails. While it has yet to be implemented, Dart said that he was inspired with this idea after almost all of the SAVE participants said that their first experiences with the criminal justice system constituted visiting jails as children, usually to see an incarcerated parent. Dart explained that a daycare program would allow inmates to maintain positive relationships with family while lessening children’s exposure to the dangerous environment of jails.
Dart also spoke at length about efforts to solve problems faced by mentally ill people in Cook County. Twenty-five to thirty percent of Cook County jail inmates are people with serious mental illnesses, of whom the vast majority are involved in nonviolent cases, he said. Under Dart, the sheriff’s department has worked to identify inmates with histories of mental health issues almost immediately upon their arrival at jails and then treat them as patients rather than detainees. This has involved reopening 1 of the 6 mental health clinics recently closed by the City of Chicago, as well as implementing stabilization programs, preparing personalized discharge programs for inmates, and working closely with their families.
However, efforts to keep mentally ill inmates out of the criminal justice system have been unsuccessful, Dart said. He described examples of local judges penalizing defendants for their mental health issues despite the Cook County Public Defender’s request for them to be placed in mental hospitals instead of prisons.
Dart concluded his talk by detailing the factors contributing to high rates of violent crime in Chicago: factionalized, constantly changing gang structures and high rates of gun ownership, often illegal, in neighborhoods perceived as dangerous. He also stressed the importance of more transparent data and more urgency in repairing the “devolved” criminal justice system, which requires, Dart said, less “indifference” on the part of judges. “I have a very contentious relationship with the judiciary. We do not get along well,” he said.