• Alex Nitkin
    JUN 19, 2020

    County leaders endorse step toward winding down jail, court funding as grim budget decisions loom

    A broad coalition of Cook County commissioners telegraphed their support on Thursday for siphoning money out of the county’s $1.2 billion criminal justice operation when it comes time to make tough decisions on next year’s budget.

    During a nearly four-hour meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Thursday, 14 out of 17 commissioners spoke up in support of a resolution (20-2867) sponsored by Comm. Brandon Johnson (D-1) calling on the county to “redirect money from the failed and racist systems of policing, criminalization, and incarceration” and reinvest the money in areas like health care, economic development and housing assistance.

    Johnson said he was “encouraged” by feedback he “received about how we as a county can further demonstrate our commitment to the voices that have been calling for transformation.”

    Commissioners voted to send the resolution to the board’s Criminal Justice Committee for a hearing next month.

    The county currently earmarks about $598 million — just under 10 percent of its total 2020 budget— for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which is responsible for operating the county’s jail and patrolling the streets in unincorporated areas. Another $576 million feeds into the budgets of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and Public Defender Amy Campanelli, whose employees staff the county’s behemoth court system.

    Johnson did not say how much he wanted diverted from the Sheriff’s Office budget in the future.

    Thursday’s discussion signaled that the county will likely take a different approach this year to law enforcement budgeting than Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has resisted calls from activists and some aldermen to rein in the Chicago Police Department’s $1.8 billion budget.

    Preckwinkle, who ran against Lightfoot for mayor in 2019, told reporters after Thursday’s meeting that she is “for reducing and redirecting our investment in law enforcement,” adding that she has “called for this manner of community reinvestment my entire career.”

    “Again and again, the people we pay to protect us kill innocent black and brown people,” Preckwinkle said.

    Johnson’s call to divert money out of law enforcement won especially warm praise from the board’s five other African American commissioners, like Comm. Dennis Deer (D-2), who said the resolution is a way “not just to say we’re doing something about this today, or next week, but this has to be perpetual.”

    Comm. Stanley Moore (D-4), who chairs the board’s Criminal Justice Committee, said he will use a hearing next month as “an opportunity to craft a very detail-oriented document that makes meaningful, lifelong changes.”

    Support also came from unlikely voices like veteran Comm. John Daley (D-11), who chairs the board’s Finance Committee and who is also the Democratic Committeeperson for Chicago’s police-heavy 11th Ward. Daley asked to be named as a co-sponsor of Johnson’s resolution and vowed to work with the freshman commissioner to “see how this affects us going forward in the 2021 budget.”

    Notably absent from the discussion was Comm. Sean Morrison (R-17), an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump and of law enforcement at all levels, who tweeted last week that police have been “Abandoned by Feckless Policticans, [sic] but NOT this elected Official, I have your 6!”

    A spokesperson for the Cook County Sheriff's Office wrote in a statement Friday that Sheriff Tom Dart "has been a national pioneer in the movement to redirect resources from traditional and outdated law enforcement toward holistic, community-centered programs intended to interrupt the cycle of arrest and incarceration."

    "Sheriff Dart has for many years been investing in the types of solutions currently being discussed as part of the growing conversation around shifting resources to programs that address the root causes of criminal activity," the spokesperson added. "We will continue to expand our investment in innovative, thoughtful alternatives that provide assistance to our most vulnerable citizens."

    Budget gap ‘just keeps climbing’

    It was unclear Thursday how the board’s commitment to divesting from law enforcement will play out in the coming months, as the county faces what Preckwinkle called “an extraordinarily difficult budget year under any circumstances.”

    Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki announced last month that the county was likely staring down at least a $260 million budget gap due to revenue losses from Covid-19, a figure Preckwinkle said Thursday “just keeps climbing.”

    Related: Cook County looks to future federal stimulus to bridge $260 million preliminary budget gap

    Rizki braced commissioners on Thursday for difficult decisions this year about which programs and employees the county should keep, especially if the federal government does not come through with another aid package.

    “I’ve spoken about our fiscal challenges related to Covid-19 ad nauseum since this started happening in March, but unfortunately, I don’t have good news for you,” Rizki said. “This is only going to get worse.”

    He added that county financial leaders will prioritize cutting “non-personnel expenses” and ask departments to slow their hiring plans before suggesting layoffs.

    Preckwinkle and Rizki said they will unveil their preliminary budget forecast for the 2021 fiscal year next Friday, June 26.

    Preckwinkle told reporters that because the budgeting process is already well underway, she is “not sure that budget can reflect some of the concerns raised by Commissioner Johnson given this point in time, but we’re going to do the best we can to be responsive.”

    Some commissioners, however, showed Thursday that they will not wait for budget talks before they clamp down on the funding directed at law enforcement. Comm. Alma Anaya (7), Comm. Bridget Degnen (12) and Comm. Kevin Morrison (15) spent nearly 30 minutes grilling representatives of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office on contracts they submitted for approval Thursday.

    At Morrison’s request, board members voted to defer approving a five-year contract (20-2326) with South Dakota-based Summit Food Service to stock the commissary of Cook County Jail. Morrison said he wanted to explore renegotiating the contract to ensure the county does not profit from food sold in the jail.

    The board voted to approve all other measures detailed in The Daily Line’s preview of Thursday’s meeting, including four new appointments and a measure (20-2825) allowing bars in unincorporated Cook County to apply for “temporary beer garden” licenses.

    This article was updated at 3 p.m. Friday, June 19 to include a statement from the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

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