The Chicago Reader profiles Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County board, who has set a goal of reshaping the county's $1 billion-a-year criminal justice system, starting with shrinking the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. For decades crafty politicians have been finding creative ways to convince voters that they're cracking down on crime, mostly by playing on racial fears and locking up black men for drugs. But Preckwinkle is a wily politician herself, and she's betting that concerns about crime have evolved. She argues that voters don't just want “toughness”—they want smarts. And she knows they're tired of being asked to pay more and more for policies with unclear results.
She has set a 2012 goal of cutting the daily inmate rolls by at least 1,000, or more than 10 percent. It would save taxpayers $5 million. Preckwinkle's jail campaign really began this summer, when she declared the war on drugs had “failed.” She then pressured Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to get city police to stop making arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession. There are about 23,000 of these arrests a year, which end up costing the county at least $78 million annually in court and jail expenses.