Front and Center #4: What's Going On in Illinois Jails?

  • Name
    Patrick Griffin ·
Front and Center:
March 12, 2024

Welcome to Front and Center, the newsletter of the Center for Criminal Justice at Loyola University Chicago. We’re Loyola’s institutional home for interdisciplinary research and education aimed at improving criminal justice policy and practice. Our work covers a wide range of criminal justice issues, and we use this newsletter to keep our colleagues, partners, supporters, and friends up to date on what we’re learning. Please feel free to share Front and Center with anyone you know who may be interested in our work. And if you have feedback or suggestions, we’d love to hear from you!

How have pretrial jail usage and jail populations across the state changed since the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA) went into effect, bringing an end to the cash bail system and imposing strict new limits on pretrial detention?

As part of our evaluation of the PFA during the two-year lead-up to its implementation in September 2023, we interviewed justice leaders and practitioners all over Illinois, and heard all sorts of predictions. Some expected jail populations in their counties to fall dramatically when PFA limits on pretrial holding for minor offenses took effect. Others thought jail numbers would rise, once the option of posting money to get release was no longer available to detainees. Still others suggested that population numbers might stay the same, and only the composition would change, with more people accused of serious and violent offenses, and fewer charged with drug, nuisance, and other lower-level offenses. At that point, it was anybody’s guess.

In our January newsletter, a few months after the PFA went into effect, we unveiled the Cook County Jail Tracker data tool, providing visualizations of recent population trends in the state’s largest jail, and showing a marked drop coinciding with the PFA. But we cautioned that real answers to questions about the PFA’s jail effects would require data from all the local jails scattered across Illinois.

So, here it is: a new research brief exploring short-term trends in pretrial bookings and pretrial jail populations across Illinois, before and after PFA implementation. Using data reported to the Illinois Department of Corrections’ Jail and Detention Standards Unit by each county Sheriff in Illinois, we measured changes in bookings and average daily populations (ADP) in each of the state’s 91 local jails, from the summer of 2023 (before the PFA) to the fall of 2023 (after the PFA). And we compared these changes to historic data showing typical seasonal variations in those numbers—because in most places jail bookings and jail populations decline from summer to fall anyway—to determine what effects might be attributable to the change in law.

Statewide, we found that after the PFA went into effect, both jail bookings and pretrial ADP declined more than would have been expected based on seasonal changes. Pretrial jail bookings fell 17.5% between summer and fall 2023, whereas historical patterns would have led us to expect a decline of only 11.5%. In other words, pretrial jail bookings fell 6 percentage points more after the PFA than we would have expected. Likewise, pretrial ADP in Illinois jails fell 14% from summer to fall 2023, about 11% more than the expected decline of 3% over this period.

But these are statewide figures, which mask lots of variation. There’s every reason to expect that any effect the PFA may have on jail usage and jail populations would vary from place to place, if only because Illinois counties were taking markedly different approaches to pretrial detention before the PFA came along. In counties that were using jails more routinely before the PFA, and for a broader range of offenses, we would expect booking and ADP numbers to change far more than in those where pretrial detention was already being used sparingly, either as a matter of historic practice or in preparation for the implementation of the new law.

But we’re also finding that post-PFA detention practices vary considerably across Illinois, in ways that would be reflected in county-level booking and ADP data. In some counties, for example, we’re hearing that nobody accused of an offense that is “nondetainable” under the PFA is ever admitted to the jail, even briefly; they are fingerprinted and released with a court date. In others, people accused of the same kinds of nondetainable offenses are still routinely booked into the jail overnight and released only after they’ve appeared before a judge and had release conditions imposed.

Because any PFA jail impact would be so dependent on local practice, pre- and post-implementation, we’ve designed and posted the Illinois Jail Population Tracker, a data dashboard that allows you to explore local patterns and variations for yourself. The dashboard allows users to examine jail data for individual counties, as well as to filter by judicial circuit, region (north, central, south), and county type (urban, rural). We’ll be updating it each month to reflect incoming data, and expanding it from time to time as new information becomes available.

Measuring the Quality of Prison Life in Illinois

Corrections agencies in England, Germany, Switzerland and other developed nations regularly collect what amounts to “consumer satisfaction” data from residents of their prisons—surveying them as you would your customers, and for similar reasons: to inform quality control and continuous organizational improvement. Many of them use a tool called the “Measuring the Quality of Prison Life” (MQPL) survey, developed by criminologists at Cambridge University and now translated and adapted for use in prisons elsewhere in Europe. The MQPL yields stable, valid measures of various aspects of a prison’s social environment, including humanity, mutual respect, order, fairness, and staff professionalism. It provides prison administrators and the public with a tangible way to compare institutions, isolate problems, and assess progress toward shared goals.

We could do that here. In fact, Loyola’s Center for Criminal Justice has been collaborating with the John Howard Association (JHA) of Illinois on a project aimed at assessing the quality of life in Illinois prisons, using an adapted version of the MQPL distributed in paper form throughout the state’s prison system. To date, more than 6,000 people from 22 prisons have returned completed MQPL forms, and Loyola Center staff, student interns and volunteers have been helping JHA dig into the responses, analyze results, and visualize findings. You can read more about the effort and see some preliminary results here.

Assessing a Deferred Prosecution Program

Prosecutor-led pretrial diversion is one practical way to hold people accountable without needlessly cluttering up the formal justice system. We just posted a report on an ongoing evaluation of one such diversion approach, the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s deferred prosecution program for nonviolent, first-time offenders, known locally as DIVERT. It’s one of many research projects we’ve conducted in Winnebago since 2017, when we began helping local leaders stand up their own criminal justice planning and coordinating body. This report summarizes data on the first couple of years of DIVERT program operation—including some generally encouraging interim results—and explores themes and issues arising from a series of interviews we’ve done with local stakeholders. Like most of our work at the local level, it’s intended to be of practical use, helping the county’s leaders understand how an innovative idea is working out in practice, who it’s serving and with what results, and where it might need to be reconsidered or changed.

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