Cook County, IL


Cook County, which contains the city of Chicago, operates one of the largest single-site jails in the United States. Cook County has made progress in reducing reliance on jail incarceration, with the population of the Cook County Jail declining 30% overall between April 2016 and July 2019.

To build on past efforts, Cook County was awarded $2.5 million from the Safety and Justice Challenge in 2020 to implement strategies that address the main drivers of the local jail population in the area, including unfair and ineffective practices that take a particularly heavy toll on people of color, low-income communities, and people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

To continue reducing the jail population safely, the county plans to implement new strategies aimed at increasing system efficiencies, offering services to individuals with unique needs, and rebuilding community trust in the justice system. These strategies will include enhancing data exchanges among agencies, regular review of individuals detained to identify release barriers, connection to appropriate services for those with mental health and substance use needs as well as individuals engaged in narcotic distribution as a form of employment, more effective management of warrants, and fostering extensive community engagement around ongoing criminal justice reform in Cook County.

  • Cook County has safely reduced its jail population by 30% since 2016, but is working to further lower it by addressing barriers to pretrial release.
  • People of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than their white counterparts in Cook County. Despite making up 50% of the county’s adult population, African Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 90% of the jail population, on average.
  • Siloed criminal justice data systems have made it difficult for data to be analyzed across agencies in a timely fashion.
  • A subset of the jail population is comprised of individuals who cycle through the system due to unaddressed mental health and/or substance use needs.
  • Barriers to living wage employment can lead individuals to engage in narcotic distribution and subsequent criminal justice involvement.
  • There is a backlog of warrants in Cook County that not only burdens the system but does not advance justice as these cases are not adjudicated until a warrant is executed. Active warrants for cases associated with minor offenses invoke fear in community members and can disrupt a person’s ability to seek employment, secure housing, and participate in other aspects of life.
  • Overuse of detention causes disruption in the stability of the families and communities of those arrested; it leads to higher re-arrest rates and produces worse case outcomes with more subsequent incarceration.
  • Implement a Jail Population Review Team that can identify barriers to pretrial release for detainees and seek solutions.
  • Develop a racial equity workgroup to ensure jail reduction strategies address current disparities.
  • Enhance data exchanges across criminal justice agencies.
  • Identify individuals with frequent justice system contact and connect them with Peer Supports who can support engagement in services and pretrial success.
  • Offer comprehensive services to help individuals engaged in narcotic distribution seek living wage employment and avoid actions that harm communities.
  • Expand efforts to address old warrants and provide opportunities to resolve existing warrants.
  • Engage communities most impacted by the justice system in dialogue about reform and solution focused action planning.

Supported with $2.5 million from the Safety and Justice Challenge, Cook County will implement forward-looking, smart solutions to further reduce the local jail population by an additional 4.8% over the next two years.

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