Cook County Spends Millions on Cases That Go Nowhere

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Currently, 1,000 people are in Cook County Jail awaiting trial on drug possession, obstruction and other misdemeanor charges. But recent history shows many of those cases may ultimately be dropped. (Published Friday, Nov 8, 2013)

    Taxpayers in Cook County are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on criminal cases that go nowhere, according to analysis conducted by The Chicago Reporter and NBC 5 Investigates.

    Currently, 1,000 people are in Cook County Jail awaiting trial on drug possession, obstruction and other misdemeanor charges. But recent history shows many of those cases may ultimately be dropped.

    Research of nearly 1.4 million cases in Cook County shows 8 out of 10 misdemeanor cases were dismissed between 2006 and 2012. That rate is among the highest in the nation, according to the US Bureau of Statistics.

    Chicago Reporter analysis revealed taxpayers have spent an estimated $100 million a year to arrest, prosecute, and detain defendants for the violations. They base the findings on the $143 cost of keeping a defendant overnight at Cook County Jail.

    "Essentially, what we have is police are making a lot of stops. They're opening a lot of cases against people, who, when they get to the criminal courts, they're not convicted of anything," said Angela Caputo of The Chicago Reporter.

    Ryan O'Keefe, 21, said he feels police often target people just to get them off the street for the day.

    "There would be times when I'm walking down the street and they pull me over and just lock me up for disorderly conduct and I wasn't doing anything wrong," O'Keefe said. "I've been locked up plenty of times for misdemeanors and I would go to court and they would throw them right out."

    O'Keefe said there are times when police witnesses have not shown up to his court hearings.

    Chicago Police Department spokesperson Adam Collins said if the department receives a court notification or subpoena for officers to appear, they are notified of their court obligations. Collins also said cases get dismissed even when an officer is present in court.

    "It can be the result of judicial discretion or a negotiated settlement," Collins said. "Tracking the reasons cases are dismissed would be a question for the State's Attorney's office or perhaps the courts."

    The state's attorney's office said it does not have the staff to "qualify the strength" of each misdemeanor charge, although dropped cases can be reinstated if a witness decides to testify.

    But the misdemeanors are draining valuable resources at time when jail space is at a premium, according to the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

    "We want to make sure that we always have room for people that need to be in the jail and not in communities on the streets committing violence," said Cara Smith of the Sheriff's Office.

    Smith said a quarter of the low-level crime defendants currently in jail will have waited more than 60 days before receiving their verdicts.

    Investigative news organization The Chicago Reporter joined forces with NBC Chicago to create hard-hitting stories on social and economic issues. Follow their stories at chicagoreporter.com.