As the cost of incarceration at Cook County Jail rises probation could soon become the norm for non-violent offenders.

At least that’s what Lavone Haywood, chief probation officer for Cook County’s adult probation department is predicting.

“Probation is a viable alternative for judges to consider when sentencing nonviolent offenders,” said Haywood. “It is less costly to sentence an offender to probation than put them in prison.”

According to Illinois Department of Corrections data, in 2014 it cost taxpayers $22,655 annually to house an offender in a state prison. In comparison, the annual cost of sentencing an offender to standard probation was $1,650.

“A low-risk offender would not report to their probation officer in-person every month, but once every [three months],” Haywood said. “And instead would mail monthly reports to his probation officer.”

However, other high-risk offenders receiving specialized supervision programs are often required to report to their probation officer in-person once or twice a month. This type of supervision, which sometimes includes regular drug testing and domestic violence counseling, costs between $2,650 and $6,250 a year, Cook County records show.

“High-risk offenders report more often to their probation officers,” added Haywood. “A low-risk offender is someone who has no prior criminal background, is employed and has stable housing. A high-risk offender is someone with an extensive arrest record or [who has been] incarcerated before.”

Most adults on probation in Cook County are black males and people sentenced to between 13 and 24 months for drug offenses, according to an analysis of Cook County records.

With an operating budget of $44 million, the adult probation department has 409 adult probation officers, with 233 of those officers assigned to standard supervision — a duty that entails an average caseload of 130. The department also oversees home confinement for offenders, commonly known as ‘house arrest.’ Twenty-four probation officers work in this division to monitor 325 offenders.

In addition to taxes, the county’s probation system is also paid for by the offenders themselves, who must pay for their supervision. The fee ranges between $5 and $50 a month, based on their income. Last year, the probation department collected $3.3 million in fees from offenders.

State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) said he is opposed to these fees.

“You shouldn’t try to get blood from a turnip,” he said. “Fees should be based on one’s ability to pay and not mandated regardless how small the fee. The jail system is not working. Instead of jail we need to develop more community-based programs that will provide rehabilitation.”

In May 2015, Ford introduced House Bill 4216, which would amend the Unified Code of Corrections and allow some offenders to participate in alternative programs. He also introduced legislation in 2014 that would allow judges to sentence low-level drug offenders already incarcerated to be released and placed on home confinement.

“There’s no rehabilitation taking place at jail,” added Ford.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Andrea Zopp said more federal legislation is needed to steer courts toward probation over incarceration for minor, criminal offenses.

“[Once elected], I plan on introducing a bill addressing adult probation. It will aim to reduce incarceration by expanding eligibility for pre-judgment probation in federal courts,” said Zopp a former assistant Cook County and U.S. attorney. “I agree that the expanded use of probation can be an effective tool in reforming our criminal justice system for non-violent offenders.”

Other alternative sentencing programs are available in addition to probation.

In 2011, the Cook County State’s Attorney Office created the “Deferred Prosecution Program” for those charged with a felony offense.The program is geared toward defendants charged with non-violent felonies, including theft, burglary, drug charges, credit card and fraud. 

According to the state’s attorney office, the program has a 75 percent successful completion rate and has had over 2,100 participants to date.

“State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has been a staunch supporter of alternative prosecution and sentencing programs, including the expanded use of adult probation services,” said Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for Alvarez. “Under State’s Attorney Alvarez’s leadership, the number of such alternative programs has more than tripled. Included in that expansion are Misdemeanor and Drug Deferred Prosecution Programs and expanded probation-based programs.”  

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is advocating for non-violent drug offenders to be placed on home confinement while awaiting trial. For those caught with small amounts of marijuana, Preckwinkle said police officers should simply write them a ticket and send them on their way.

Simonton added that Drug School was first implemented in the 1970s and provides diversion and education for first-time low-level misdemeanor and felony drug offenders. As a result of the program, 50,000 cases have been dismissed to date and its success rate is over 90 percent.

Unlike parole, which is facilitated by the state, local counties manage probation departments. Both the adult and juvenile probation departments for Cook County are under the supervision of Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy Evans.

The best sentence an offender could receive in Cook County is probation, contends Haywood.

“Probation is not just a slap on the wrist. Probation requires individuals to be responsible, holds them accountable, and can include many rehabilitative components,” he explained. “Being in the community allows one to have a job, attend school, participate in treatment programs, pay victim restitution where appropriate, complete community service, and maintain family and community ties.”