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Editor’s note:  Today’s stories on pre-trial detention are supported through a fellowship awarded to Pantagraph reporter Edith Brady-Lunny by the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice, which was supported in part by the Public Welfare Foundation.  

Karen Emberton spent 44 days in McLean County jail waiting for a resolution to her low-level felony charge of filing a false police report.

The reasons behind the stay that exceeded the 30-day average for others facing Class 4 felonies last year went beyond the $325 she lacked to secure her release.

The 51-year-old woman, whose developmental disabilities made her a frequent victim of people who took her food and overstayed their welcome in her Bloomington apartment, did not meet other criteria.  At an April hearing to consider a personal recognizance bond, Judge Rebecca Foley explained why it was in Emberton’s best interest to stay in jail.

“I’m worried about you. You’ve got a big heart and you try to help people. That’s put you in a bad spot,” said Foley. Later, a plea deal placed Emberton on court supervision on a reduced misdemeanor charge in exchange for her pledge to live in a residential facility in Decatur for two years.

The majority of inmates held in McLean County jail are pre-trial detainees — people like Emberton, who are accused of crimes, but are unable to pay the cash portion of their bonds that would allow them to leave while their cases are pending.  Cash bonds range from a few hundred to a hundreds of thousand of dollars, or more; the offenses cover everything from minor crimes to murder.

Four years ago, concerns about overcrowding expanded to a review of why people are in jail and how long they are staying. The county’s criminal justice practices were examined in a study by the National Institute of Corrections, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The study led to the creation of the McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which considers major issues related to the efficiency and effectiveness of the local criminal justice system.

Among the council’s first orders of business was talking about the purpose of jail, said Sheriff Mike Emery, who serves on the council with Judges Elizabeth Robb and Robert Freitag, other criminal justice officials and community members.

“The CJCC discussed proper utilization of the jail and determined that people should be in jail because we are afraid of them, not because we are mad at them,” said Emery.

State’s Attorney Jason Chambers compared jail and prison population to a glass of water: “If they are full and we pour more water in, then some of the water is going to come out. We need to make sure that we have the right water in the glass.”

A recent check of the jail’s population showed 59 inmates serving sentences and 168 others held in pre-trial detention. That puts McLean County slightly above the 61 percent pre-trial detention rate for about 750,000 people held in U.S. jails.

Although the number of people under some form of correctional supervision, including jails, prisons, probation and parole, dropped in 2011, the U.S. still leads the world with a supervision rate of one in 34 people. That mass incarceration rate starts in county courthouses where decisions are made on charges and the terms of bail bond.

Scoring system

In McLean County, the development of a pre-trial services program has put information about a defendant’s life into the hands of prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges who decide the terms of a defendant’s release.

During interviews with inmates, a pre-trial services worker collects details on the defendant’s family, employment and criminal history that give judges a more complete picture, said pre-trial coordinator Sharjeel Rizvi.

The scoring system that rates an inmate’s potential risk to public safety and likelihood of returning to court “eliminates individual bias and the possibility of decisions made on rich or poor, black or white. It puts everyone in one universal category,” said Rizvi.

Since the first screenings in 2007, bond reports have been written on 625 people with about 30 percent of them released on pre-trial supervision. With an overall success rate of 85 percent — measured by no new arrests or skipped court appearances — the program is providing benefits to detainees and the community, said Rizvi.

Beyond the obvious advantage of having one’s freedom, being out of jail can lead to a more positive outcome of a person’s criminal case, said Kim Campbell, McLean County public defender.

“Jailing people prior to trial has huge consequences. ... They lose their jobs, housing and sometimes even their families, and it makes preparing a defense more difficult,” she said.

Building a clean record that may be considered later by a judge is helpful, too, but the opportunity comes with a burden to behave, added Bloomington defense lawyer Jeff Brown.

“The downside is if something goes wrong while they are out on bail and picked up on a new charge, that could work against them,” he said.

An extended jail stay also can serve as motivation for a plea deal.

“The state is more likely to make an offer for time served in jail and the defendant is more to accept,” said Bloomington defense attorney David Rumley.

The cost of lockups

The high cost of detaining people in jails, estimated at $9 billion annually, has more of the nation’s 3,000 counties setting aside the political aspects of incarceration and considering pre-trial release programs, said Chris Rodgers, president of the National Association of Counties.

“The counties don’t see red or blue on this — they see green,” Rodgers told journalists at a national symposium on pre-trial detention issues held in May in New Orleans.

McLean County’s pre-trial release program is one factor contributing to a steady decrease in jail numbers.  Like most of the country, McLean County has benefited from a drop in its crime rate in recent years, meaning fewer people being jailed.

The number of jail bookings has declined since 2009 when 8,355 people were processed, compared to 7,174 so far this year. The daily cost of keeping a person in the county jail is $50, said Emery.

Another result of the attention paid to pre-trial programs is that the number of people held on the most serious crimes are staying in jail longer than those charged with lower-level offenses, said Frank Beck, an analyst with Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center on Community Affairs that provides data to the CJCC.

“The data are behaving as we want them to behave,” said Beck.

But he cautioned that an uptick in crime could put the county at risk for overcrowding again.

Researchers have questioned why the total number of people in U.S. jails has not declined as the crime rate has dipped.

“It’s like the disease is gone, but we’ve still got this big hospital functioning,” said James Austin, president of JFA Institute, a center for research and planning on corrections issues.

The high success rate for people released under pre-trial supervision indicates the public faces little risk when offenders wait on the outside for their case to be resolved. Jail is a temporary address for most inmates — less than 5 percent of inmates go to state prison. The remaining inmates could serve probation, a local jail sentence or be released without being prosecuted.

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