“I Have a Moral Challenge”: An Interview with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

 /  Jan. 17, 2016, 3 p.m.


As Cook County Sheriff, Tom Dart heads the Cook County Jail, the largest single-site jail in the United States, where he oversees a population of 12,000 people, including inmates housed on-site and those sentenced to alternative programs. Since his election in 2006, Dart has tackled problems related to overcrowding, mental health, and environmental sustainability. He was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009. Prior to serving as Cook County Sheriff, Dart was a state prosecutor and state legislator in Illinois.

The Gate: What do you think is the single biggest problem facing the Cook County Jail right now?

Tom Dart: I think the biggest problem facing the jail right now is the fact that we have been forced to become the largest mental institution in the state. I think that’s the biggest challenge for the jail, but I think the bigger issue is that the public is completely unaware of what’s going on, both in the jail I operate and throughout the entire criminal justice system. So you have the more micro problem, which is that I’ve become the largest mental health provider, but the reason that [the problem continues] is because people are so disengaged from this issue.

Gate: You were interviewed by the Atlantic and discussed the state of mental health among incarcerated populations nationwide. Can you dive in further about how this issue has impacted your ability to operate a jail in Cook County?

Dart: If you think about it from this standpoint, jails, for better or worse, were developed and designed with a fundamental theory: there are people who commit criminal acts, and we need to hold them [before and during] their trials, and then they will go either to prison or back out to the streets, whatever it may be. So jails were designed with this underlying philosophy. Well, when you then take a completely different group of individuals who don’t in any way fit the reason for these entities to develop and exist, you’ve completely bastardized the whole program. And if you’re a thoughtful person and step back from it, you’re going to reach the expected conclusion, namely that the wrong people are in the wrong place. There are a million different analogies you can think of, but it probably would be analogous to taking an average six-year-old and putting him or her in a graduate program. It wouldn’t work; it wasn’t designed for that. Or taking a person who has diabetes, for example, and isolating them from the world in a concrete room for two months. It’s not helping the diabetes, and it’s not directed toward the root of the problem. So if you have a moment to step back from it, you can see that the logic is not there, and without the logic, the remedy that’s been put in place does not [solve the problem]. So nothing good will go on here. You have the wrong entity taking care of the wrong people. And from there, you will have a lot of problems, as you could imagine. But I just don’t think people fully grasp that. It really is no different than if you fell and broke your leg and went to an orthopedist and she diagnosed it and said, “You have a broken leg. Here’s your prescription, and we’re going to send you to the county jail for sixty days.” People would find that whole notion so preposterous but for some reason, when it comes to the mentally ill, it’s never thought of like that. It is, in part, because the criminal justice system is so shrouded in secrecy. But people benignly go along with it. It’s so easy to convince yourself that criminal justice is a very uncomfortable topic, that you, as a law-abiding citizen, are not involved with the system and don’t need to talk about it. You pay taxes, so someone else can deal with that mess. And so I think these two things, a secretive system and a lack of critical analysis among the population, come together in confluence, which allows people to insulate themselves from any of this discussion. With this, you have a perfect storm in which the wrong people are put into criminal justice settings and are stuck there forever. And they really are, if you think about it. The people I’m talking about are in and out of jail so often that they spend the majority of the year in a criminal justice setting, usually in a jail cell. So it turns into a roundabout life sentence.

Gate: How do you humanize the inmate experienceserving a population whose needs are not necessarily being met outside the criminal justice system, while also recognizing that they are suspected and, in some cases, convicted criminals? How do you put aside your personal biases to carry out your job?

Dart: The public, once again, they have busy lives and they have the world upon them and the criminal justice system isn’t high [on their list of priorities], but they confuse prisons and jails all the time. And for the outsider, that’s not a real big problem. But when it comes to addressing these problems and identifying the ways in which these institutions are being misused, you really need to know the distinctions. Prisons are for people convicted of crimes, and they go there for a determinate period of time, by and large. Jails throughout the country are similar to my jail in that they are primarily for holding individuals waiting for their trial. Approximately 95-96 percent of my jail population is awaiting trial. There’s a meager number who are there serving a minor sentence, usually for drunk driving or something like that. So by and large, the majority of them are not convicts. They might have a criminal background, but they’re not convicted yet. They’re just waiting. I humanize them and don’t have a problem [doing so], because I always start with a baseline question, which I think everyone needs to ask themselves: Is this person a criminal? Is this a person with criminal intent who’s attempting to harm our society and therefore deserves to be in a criminal justice setting? Or is this person not of that ilk, and therefore should have nothing to do with it? If you actually get around to asking that baseline question, you would find that there’s no reason to talk of these people in any way other than the fact that they’re people with an illness who have been swept into a system that they’re not supposed to be in by a very uncaring society. So I don’t have a hard time with that one at all.

I always tell people, we’re not so uncaring that we’re literally driving vans up and down streets just grabbing people with mental illness. It’s not that bad. There is a criminal intersection that goes on. It’s not just grabbing people randomly. But that criminal intersection is not appropriate for the criminal justice system to be engaged with. They wouldn’t sit there and say, “Okay, you are sleeping on a bench at O’Hare Airport, so you need to go into the criminal justice system.” No, a thoughtful person would say, let’s find out why you’re sleeping on that bench, let’s find out what your issues are, and let’s put you on track so that [this] is no longer your primary option. But that isn’t what happens here, and so that’s where the humanizing part for me is easy, because the underlying criminal event that brought them in is so inconsequential. And if the public was aware of this, they would feel the same way. They would say, “My God, this is thoughtless, this is unethical, and it’s outrageously expensive. This is really not smart, let’s not do this.”

Gate: Given that there is a misconception about the difference between jails and prisons, which can lead people to misunderstand your work and goals, what percentage of people who go through your jail are then ultimately sent to prison?

Dart: That’s a great question, because once again, there’s that fallacy that you get arrested, you get booked into the system, you go for a bond hearing, you’re held in a jail, and then off you go to prison once your case is disposed of through either trial or plea. But that’s not the case. We have, and it’s a little hard to nail the exact number, but I’d imagine that anywhere between 75 and 85 percent of my population is not sent to the prison system. They’re going right back to the street. And that is a number that blows people away, because they just assume [the jail is full of criminals] on their way to prison and that’s just not what happens. Large numbers of them are getting probation sentences so they go out the door. A lot of them, because of the failures of our judicial system, serve their whole time in my jail, so they’re basically released from there. And then there’s a large percentage, I think it’s about 20 percent, who have their cases dismissed at some point. So that is a number that I don’t think many people understand, because if they did understand it, then there would be this larger public outcry. I’ve become the receptacle for these individuals, but I’m also the funnel back to the community, not necessarily the funnel to the prison system.

We need to focus on treatment, we need to focus on therapy, job skills, and housing issues for inmates that are released from prisons. But because people have confused the issues [facing jails and prisons] for so long, they just sort of say, “Sheriff, you just hold these people, and then we’ll put the programming and the thoughtfulness inside the prison system, so when [they’re released from prison] after serving their terms, then we’ll think through all of that.” That’s completely disconnected from the fact that the majority of my people are not going that route, because they’re not going to prison. So that’s been an educational part and a challenge that I’ve had to address, to wake people up to the significance of having the focus on jail, not just prison.

Gate: Throughout this conversation, you’ve talked about increasing public awareness in order to highlight key problems in the United States criminal justice system. How do you propose getting this public buy-in to ultimately improve the system?

Dart: From literally day one, we made the place outrageously transparent. It was interesting because my predecessor was a really neat guy, but he’s from a different generation, and they have different takes on these things than I did. The norm throughout the country is you shroud the place in secrecy, you don’t let people in, you don’t tell them what’s going on. I guess in theory, then, you don’t get sued as muchI often tell people, I get sued more than anybody in the state of Illinois. But I felt that if you actually open the place up and show people what’s going on, it will educate them and increase their understanding of the difficulties we’re facing, and then when the bad things occur, which is inevitable when you have so many people housed in an environment like this, the public will be more understanding. So we have the media in there all the time. I want to say it’s darn close to unlimited access. The limits, more often, are placed by the detainees. I can’t force a detainee to talk to a reporter. I can’t force them to do anything. So more often than not, when someone’s having a problem with access or something like that, it’s driven by the detainees . . . who don’t want to talk to anybody. But we have the media all over the place there. I can’t even tell you how many TV shows that I’ve had since I’ve been in there. And it was funny because they had been trying to do it for years, and they could never get in there, and I was of the strongest opinion that the more people knew, the better. So we’ve had some really, really thoughtful [shows and segments] and then we had some crazier ones, and I stopped doing those because they weren’t really accomplishing my goals. The coverage was turning into those goofy cop shows or something, and they were disappointed that I wasn’t having riots every night, and I was like, “Well, I wish I could help you here, but there’s nothing I can do.” And so some of those people, thankfully, wandered away. But it really is an effort to get as much focus on it.

We also do a lot with our website and through social media so people can drill into what we’re doing there. We put so much on our website, which normally would be counterintuitive. Normally you wouldn’t want to post these things, but I want it all up there. I actually highlight the individuals in my jail, I think it’s like ten or twenty at a time, that I believe shouldn’t be in there. So at any time, the public can go on my website and find some of the outrages. I do this with the notion that [transparency] is the only way I’m going to get things turned around, getting  people to understand how bad it is. And trust me, we haven’t gotten to the point where things are totally transparent, and I’m always happy to hear ideas, but we’ve tried every avenue that we know of in order to be as transparent as possible.

Gate: So I would imagine that the most common argument that you hear as pushback to increasing services for inmates would be the budget argument? Obviously, Governor Bruce Rauner is not a huge fan of increasing your budget.

Dart: Yes. I don’t think he’s too much a fan of me, either.

Gate: That’s fair. Given budget cuts, how do you continue to make that argument?

Dart: I have tried in every opportunity. I’ll be honest with you, I somewhat try to contrive things. When I say that, I mean that when I have particular outrages, I try to figure out a way to package it into not necessarily a press conference, but something in that vein where I can expose something that’s outrageous and combine it with a solution. Not just scream, “This is horrible!” and then walk away. I have used numerous outrages to expose the fallacy of what we’re doing and have proposed what I believe is a thoughtful approach in an effort to try to get buy-in from the public and get them to understand what needs to be done. Whether you’re doing it from the moral standpoint, the compassionate standpoint, or the fiscal standpoint, either route you want to go is great by me as long as you reach the same results. I try to get them to understand that besides only the tiniest percentage [of my jail], other than 3 percent of the overall population there, everybody is getting out and going back to communities. Would you not rather have us try like there’s no tomorrow to give them pathways to success so that they aren’t coming back in? If you’re from the moral side, you would find [returning them to jail] to be repugnant, or fiscally, you would not want them coming back in because it’s expensive, and it’s absurd to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different results.

There are so many different programs [designed to improve jails], some of which are better than others. But I’ll tell you one of the chief failings I have found: These vendors and service providers have not done themselves any favors because they have not measured the success of their programs almost across the board. You’re really left with your jaw sort of dropping at times when you’re sitting there trying to explain to a thoughtful public why we should implement this program because the results are so solid. But then you’re looking at a service provider who has never measured anything. That is a challenge. That’s a weird dynamic, too. That psychology is bizarre. I’ve found that it’s either outrageously passionate people who run a program that they just believe inthey just believe in it so they want it to continue, and they’re anxious that if it’s evaluated there might be a flaw found in it and their whole reason for living is gone and their program goes awayor, it’s the programs that provide a lot of salaries to a lot of people, and leaders don’t necessarily want it evaluated because if it’s properly evaluated, they might have to either end the program or lay people off.

Gate: Obviously a lot of local and national stakeholders influence how you operate and what you do. In an interview with Crain’s you said that you don’t really communicate that much with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Rauner. Given this lack of communication, how do you think you can accomplish your goals and get them to understand your positions?

Dart: I can work with virtually anybody, and I have demonstrated that. When I was in the legislature, for years I worked with the Republican side all the time, and I would freely tell anybody that the vast majority of my fights were with the Democrats. It was for a variety of reasons. I’ve never had an issue working with people, and I’d prefer to work with people than work against them. I found as I was spending my years in the legislature that when you engage with other people, it can really slow you down terribly. Even if they’re well-meaning, and that’s always a question, but even if they’re well-meaning, your bureaucracy and their bureaucracy are required to work together. They might want to have multiple meetings on an issue that you have identified and you’ve come up with a solution for, yet they want to study it some more. Legislative bodies, in particular, but many other entities will study things to death, and I have told people over and over again: I have found in my personal experience that many of these entities study it purposefully so that whatever the event that triggered the need for this new initiative, which is usually a horrible event and so the media is all over it, if you study it, you get the media off your back because they’re thinking that you’re serious about this and just give you time to come up with a solution. So you get them off your back, you kick it down the road a bit, then no one’s paying attention, and you don’t really need to get anything done at the end of the day. You don’t need to rock any boats.

You’ll have that going on or just the complication of people who don’t have the same sense of urgency that I have, which is a very real sense of urgency. I have a moral challenge: I am overseeing a jail, a place in which I believe there are people who shouldn’t be in there. And I can’t wait for the great debaters and theologians to come together over the course of the next twenty years and come up with a program. I have two to three hundred people leaving the jail everyday. If I’m not providing them with a pathway, no one else will. I can work with people, I have different people I do work with, but if someone either is not serious or they don’t want to work with me, I couldn’t care less. I will not get sucked into their little world of pointless meetings that have no agendas, that have no thought behind them.

And with Rauner and Emanuel particularly, there’s little that I’m reliant on them for. They don’t have any say in what I do and how I do itthey have zero say, period, which is great. If they did, I wouldn’t be doing this job. The downside of not working together would be that if, in theory, they were interested in these issues, they would be coming up with their own set of ideas and examples and things like that. I haven’t really seen that anyway. Rauner put together some phony-baloney committee that’s going to study the criminal justice system, which is really cool because that will be the one-millionth study of the criminal justice system. And I find it fascinating that we are the largest provider of bodies to the Illinois Department of Corrections, yet they didn’t even ask to have anybody from our entity included in their little study group. When they did that, it just sent me a signal.It just sent a signal to me that they aren’t really serious; they’re just going to churn out a handful of ideas that have been out there forever, and then they can check the box off that they cared and tried something. The state funds about two million, two-and-a-half million of my operations through my child support division. They need me more than I need them. Theoretically, if they didn’t give me that money, would I have to lay people off? Yeah, I would. But, then they’d have no one serving summons for child support, and they have to do that. That’s really the only interaction I have with state funding, and the city funds zero of my operations. It would be nice if you had more thoughtful people in some of those positions that were wanting to be more engaged. They’re thoughtful people, but I wish they were more thoughtful on this issue and wanting to be engaged.

The one thing I will tell you is that I do not minimize that for both Rauner and for Emanuel, the fiscal issues they’re facing right now are probably so consuming that it might not give them a lot of time for these other issues. But, once again, I don’t really have to get into what their motive is for not being terribly engaged in this because it’s not stopping us. It would maybe make it easier. We do have something going on with the city of Chicago right now; they are funding a position at my receiving area, and this person is going to help us steer people toward substance abuse programs and provide a little bit of housing support. There’s been a toe in the water recently from the city, which is really cool. I’m also working because they shut down six of the city’s twelve mental health clinics about three years ago and most of them were on the West Side where we have a really big problem. So in early January or February, I worked out an agreement with them, and so I am going to reopen one of their clinics and I’m going to operate it. I’ll be honest with you, I just found money in my budget that I think I could use better. I’m not asking for any new moneyI’m just reorganizing what I do.

Gate: You said that politicians these days aren’t willing to rock the boat and that they form a lot of committees. If you had the magic wand and you could rock the boat, what would be your biggest initiative to make things better?

Dart: The biggest initiative I would pursue if I could sweep in both the mentally ill and non-mentally ill would be an overall agreement that if you are poor, that doesn’t mean you need to be in the criminal justice system. What I mean by that is the way that our criminal justice system operates, whether you are poor, mentally ill, or both, the cards are so stacked against you on so many different levels that you will end up in the criminal justice system frequently, and you will frequently end up in there for indeterminate periods of time that are not based on what your action was that got you there. It would be a more thorough understanding and agreement that the criminal justice system is being misused for societal problems and it particularly, I don’t want to say exclusively, but damn close to it, impacts people of color and people who are poor. I think reaching that understanding would lead the country to a really thorough shaking out of what is the purpose of the criminal justice system. Is it being used correctly, and if not, then let’s change it in a hurry. We’ve already done a bunch of stuff at our jail, so it’s doable.

A lot of the stuff I always tell people, I love talking to people about these issues and getting involved, on a practical level, is we are helping real humans who are being carted into these systems and can’t get out. You can have the theoretical discussion but you can also get the practical done, too. So, I think that is really where you need to go. You know, you can come up with some insane study, talking about X, Y, or Z, but is it something that is impactful that will ever be realized? Let’s fix the one that’s fixable right now.

Chelsea Fine and Haley Schwab


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