America’s largest mental health hospital is the Cook County jail. With a daily population of some 9,000 inmates, it’s the biggest single-site penal facility in the country, and it’s estimated that as many as one-third of the people housed there have mental health issues. “When you walk around, you can’t help but feel you’re in the wrong place,” says Sheriff Tom Dart. “You feel like you’re in a mental health hospital. If they’re going to make it so that I am going to be the largest mental health provider, we’re going to treat these people as patients.”
Since becoming sheriff in 2007, Dart has worked to transform the jail from a warehouse for prisoners into a facility that provides its occupants with the mental health care and resources they desperately need. Three-fifths of Dart’s correction officers have mental health training; all new incoming staff now must complete 60 hours of advanced training in mental illness treatment. In 2015, he chose a psychiatrist to be warden of the jail, said to be the first such appointment in the nation. Dart has implemented mandatory screening for behavioral and substance abuse disorders when suspects are detained, and he refers them to treatment outside the jail’s confines if they seem to need it. For those sentenced to hard time and ineligible for treatment outside, Dart instituted group therapy. To reduce recidivism, he established a 24-hour telephone hotline for ex-inmates struggling after they are released.
Dart didn’t set out to be the sheriff of the nation’s second-largest county. In fact, he grew up wanting to be a priest. But after beginning his career as a prosecutor and then serving for a decade as a state lawmaker, Dart saw the job of sheriff as one in which he could work on the health and social welfare issues that mattered most to him.
As sheriff, Dart is also responsible for foreclosure evictions, and he has fought to limit them. As the housing crisis was cresting in 2008, he made news for refusing to process evictions against tenants he believed had been treated unfairly by lending institutions. He installed new rules that make it harder to kick out tenants when their landlords have fallen behind in their mortgage payments. His efforts won national attention; TIME magazine put him on its list of the 100 most influential Americans.
After asking what he called “basic questions” about the Illinois child welfare system, Dart realized that states often don’t try to find runaway foster kids. In 2012, he established a task force to track down children in Cook County who’ve left foster homes. “Our child welfare system does not look for these kids,” Dart says. “How can we accept that?”
Dart is politically popular, but his tenure hasn’t been without controversy. Correctional officers’ unions have criticized him for protecting inmates at the cost of officer safety. He’s fought with County Board President Toni Preckwinkle over staffing levels. He’s been called “Sheriff Goofy” for sponsoring chess tournaments, teaching inmates to raise chickens, and allowing them to make and serve pizza to each other. But he says he wears that nickname proudly.
And the results speak for themselves. Thanks to Dart’s diversion programs, the Cook County jail population is at its lowest point in more than a decade -- a trend that could save taxpayers more than $180 million over the next 10 years.
-- By Mattie Quinn
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