An investigation by the Chicago Reader has uncovered a pre-detention crisis at Cook County Jail, where more than 1,000 inmates have been awaiting trial for more than two years. In extreme cases, inmates have been held without trial for more than eight years. Minorities account for 93 percent of these long-waiting inmates, an even higher percentage than the jail’s overall population. Most inmates awaiting trial for multiple years face charges for violent crimes such as murder, rape, or assault. But nearly half of them have been held simply because they couldn’t post bond.
But poverty isn’t the only cause of prolonged pretrial detention. The Reader’s probe found a court system plagued by unnecessary delays. Court systems around the country are crippled by overwhelmed public defenders and overscheduled courtrooms, but Cook County defendants also face judges and police commanders who fail to ensure that officers appear in court when needed and a state crime lab so overburdened it can take up to a year to turn around basic DNA samples. Defense attorneys who invoke Illinois’ speedy trial law—which requires the state to seat a jury within 120 days for defendants in custody—claim to have faced prosecutorial or judicial retaliation.