Could the Mayor’s plan to stop drinking, public urination worsen crowding at Cook County Jail?

Could the Mayor’s plan to stop drinking, public urination worsen crowding at Cook County Jail?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to discourage standard-of-living crimes like drinking, public urination and illegal gambling by doubling the fines and threatening to throw into jail for six months anyone who has skipped out on a hearing and then missed their court date.

The move might be able to cut down on the crimes themselves, but there’s another possible outcome: adding yet more people who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes to the already nearing capacity Cook County Jail.

The ordinance, introduced in February and passed by the Chicago City Council on April 10, is intended to make it clear that the list of crimes it addresses “aren’t victimless crimes,” as Rahm Emanuel says in the city’s press release. The fines for drinking, urinating or defecating on the public way would double from the current $500; for gambling the current maximum fine is $200.

Then there’s the risk of jail time. If a person gets a ticket for, let’s say, gambling, the person can either pre-pay the fine or appear at an administrative hearing to contest the ticket. If the person does neither, he or she is assumed guilty and given 35 days to appeal the judgment. If no appeal is filed, the person becomes eligible for arrest on the charge of failing to appear. Though the police don’t have a warrant out for the defendant, if they come across the police at a traffic stop or for another ordinance violation they will be arrested.

And if a person can’t pay bond, as many low-income people languishing in Cook County Jail can’t, the defendant could spend up to six months behind bars.

Jail time as one of the consequences of missing a hearing is already in place for marijuana arrests--the ordinance would extend the risk of jail time to public urination, drinking and gambling.

The Chicago Reporter took a look at the City of Chicago's database of all incidents of crime for the past year and found that between April 14, 2012 and April 14, 2013, 650 people were arrested for gambling, mostly for playing dice. Whet Moser over at Chicago Magazine’s blog looked at gambling data all the way back to 2001. He found 12,540 arrests for illegal gambling, and the majority of them took place in neighborhoods of color. 

Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, said that even if public urination or drinking takes place at similar levels in most neighborhoods around Chicago, heavily policed black and Latino neighborhoods are likely to bear the brunt of the tickets.

“There is officer discretion about writing a ticket,” he said, “and when you give people discretion like that, all too often it comes down to impose those consequences on people of color.”

Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs Cook County Jail, and Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board President, have long been warning that the facility’s population is unsustainable, and that the only way to cut back is to keep only  people convicted of violent crimes in the system.

The Reporter checked in with Dart’s office to find out how many extra bodies it would take to reach capacity. Sophia Ansari, a spokeswoman with the sheriff’s office, said the number changes every day. But as of April 10, 2013, there were 10,042 inmates.

Ansari said there were 10,379 beds available, meaning that it would take only 337 people to fill the jail’s beds to capacity. The sheriff’s office keeps a table on its website showing how many people are in the jail at any one time and how much it costs to house them.

When asked whether the crowding of Cook County Jail is a concern, Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Law, said “it is too soon to speculate about that. The goal is to deter the behavior, and hold people accountable for committing ordinance violations.”

Photo by: Images_of_Money


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  • "Could the Mayor’s plan to stop drinking, public urination worsen crowding at Cook County Jail?"

    I hope so. If a person can't bring himself to meet the requirements that are not very onerous, then some jail time might be an incentive. The people in neighborhoods that have to put up with this display deserve some consideration too.

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    [Unfortunately] I have to agree with you on this one. This post is no different than the one a couple of days ago that more is being spent on jail than schools in neighborhoods where the news reports indicate that parents don't want their children walking to school past streets loaded with used drug needles.

    Again, the overcrowding problem can be solved by releasing all the jail inmates and public urinators into Yana's neighborhood. But I don't think that Yana and Angela want that. Yet, as you point out, the Muckrakers, being the advocates of race and poverty, apparently don't care what is going on in the communities where this disorder exists.

    And, if they were journalists, they would look into whether the "no tolerance" policies in New York under Giuliani really worked, but it is a lot easier for them to make it easy on the criminals.

  • Hot bunking isn't the answer. The County pays exorbitant fines when the jail is past its limit pursuant to a Federal decree

  • How many shootouts in white neighborhoods have started from a dice game vs a black neighborhood? I definitely understand the cause for concern, but contextually taking someone else's money in a dice game in Wrigleyville will likely have far different consequences than in Woodlawn...

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