RIVER NORTH — Sheriff Tom Dart, who oversees the Cook County Jail, said he wishes somebody in Springfield "had a functioning brain" to help the judicial system deal with the mentally ill.
Speaking before the City Club of Chicago Thursday, the sheriff said the system is overburdened with the mentally ill and that cuts suggested by the governor would be a "disaster."
"I wish somebody there [in the Governor's Office] had a functioning brain," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in a four-way discussion with other law-enforcement officials at the City Club.
Dart, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and Chief Judge Timothy Evans all agreed the judicial system has to use its limited resources more wisely.
Yet Dart seized the initiative by estimating that 3,000 of the almost 8,000 daily inmates at Cook County Jail are mentally ill. He said that made his office the largest single mental-health provider in the state.
"Do we have the right people in jail for the right amount of time? No," he said, calling the jail "a dumping ground for a dysfunctional system."
Dart said cuts in city and state funding for treating the mentally ill have set them loose on the streets, resulting in arrests that clog the judicial system. He decried Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposals for additional cuts in that area.
"This is not a system that's working properly," Dart said. He gave an example of one mentally ill inmate who "eats the jail," including loose bolts and screws and scraps of leather and metal, and has to be under constant monitoring.
Preckwinkle agreed that the judicial system was "foisting them off on the sheriff." She said it cost the county $142 a day to care for each inmate at the jail.
Yet the Rauner administration defended the proposed cuts as necessary.
"Years of fiscal mismanagement and insider dealing have put the state $6 billion in the red and, without structural reform, difficult choices must be made to balance the budget," said Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly. "Many people served by the services being discontinued are now covered by the expansion of Medicaid and coverage of mental health under the Affordable Care Act."
The Emanuel administration made similar claims after closing six mental-health clinics.
Dart said those problems had undercut success in other areas granting nonviolent offenders release without bail, as with electronic monitoring, while they await trial. He said reforms such as a mental-health center at the Markham Courthouse in the southern suburbs and drop-off centers intended to get the mentally ill treatment before they're formally arrested have improved processing, but that other reforms are necessary "so that our resources are fully on the bad people."
Preckwinkle said the jail population of about 7,800 was at its lowest level since 1991, but pointed out "it hasn't had any effect on public safety," with the city still suffering from persistent street violence and shootings. She said the system was also overburdened from a "disgraceful" inequity in the prosecution of what she called "petty antisocial behavior," such as marijuana smoking and shooting dice.
She cited statistics showing that 86 percent of the Cook County Jail population is African-American or Hispanic.
"This is about race and class," Preckwinkle said.
Alvarez and Evans cited improvements in "alternative programs," such as deferred sentencing for nonviolent offenders, that had lowered the jail population and saved an estimated $70 million a year. But they both added that judges and prosecutors also need to weigh public safety with other more dangerous offenders.
Alvarez pointed to this week's conviction of Timothy Herring, who was out on parole for armed robbery when she said he "executed" police officer Michael Flisk in 2010.
"To have a healthy discussion, we have to talk about violence," Alvarez added.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: