This story is part one of a two-part series.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stood in front of lawyers and politicians to explain how George N. Leighton rose from humble beginnings to become a revered figure in the legal world.
"I've always held the fundamental belief," she said, "that if you have a vision and you're willing to work hard for it, you can accomplish it."
Preckwinkle envisions a more efficient criminal justice system. She seemingly shows a will to work for it.
But to accomplish her goals, Preckwinkle must navigate a climate where law and politics collide to create a reality that exists no matter who sits in the president's chair.
Voters elect the officials who run the offices that put prosecutors, sheriff's deputies, clerks and judges in courtrooms. This isn't city government, where the mayor selects the corporation counsel and police superintendent.
On the June day that Preckwinkle addressed the crowd, the courthouse commonly known as "26th and Cal" got named after Leighton, the legendary lawyer who turns 100 this month.
Changing the name outside the building only needed county board approval. Changing any process inside the Leighton Criminal Court Building requires — depending on the idea — agreement from the chief judge, state's attorney, sheriff or circuit clerk.
"She really makes an effort to bring stakeholders together," said Preckwinkle supporter Marc S. Lipinski of Donnelly, Lipinski & Harris LLC.
"We have so many divisions of government and elected officials. And to try to get people to work together for a common purpose is difficult. But I think the necessity of doing so is apparent."
Starting in bond court
Cook County spends about $788 million this year — or about 35 percent of its general fund — to operate courtrooms, a jail and a juvenile detention center. Preckwinkle wants to cut the cost.
She focuses on nonviolent offenders in criminal bond court where defendants first enter the court system after arrest.
Consider a $6,000 bond that requires a $600 payment for a defendant to leave jail before trial.
"If you're there for a couple days and you don't have it, the chances are you might be there for a considerable period of time," she said.
"And it's costing us as the taxpayers of Cook County — $143 a day to keep somebody in jail. So very quickly, it's costing us more than their bond to keep them in jail."
In July, Preckwinkle announced a plan for pretrial services workers to get arrest reports at 6 a.m., and start interviewing defendants about their criminal history and employment status at 7 a.m. Currently, nothing starts before 8 a.m.
Instead of using paper records, pretrial services would electronically send the interview results to the judge, prosecutors and assistant public defenders.
This would let defense attorneys explore factors to help an arrestee get a low bond. For example, the interview system doesn't always reveal if a detainee attends substance abuse or church programs.
Preckwinkle also wants nonviolent defendants who can't afford bail to return to court to file a motion to reconsider and ask a judge for a reduced bond, electronic monitoring or an individual recognizance bond.
She proposed the ideas at a morning news conference with Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke.
That night, she appeared on television on "Chicago Tonight" with Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans. The segment featured moments that looked like a political debate, but history shows that's no surprise.
Preckwinkle, 65, got her political start in 1991 by ending Evans' 18-year grip on an aldermanic seat. Evans previously defeated her in the 1983 and 1987 elections.
At one point during the show, Evans reminded the host that Preckwinkle isn't a lawyer. The host also asked why the bond court changes hadn't happened before and mentioned Preckwinkle's comment that the county operates in "silos."
"One of the problems in a case like this," Evans told the host, "is that not all of those who are speaking have been around long enough to know exactly what the past has presented to us. For example, most of the suggestions that are now being embraced by President Preckwinkle … I recommended in 2007, 2008."
So far, Preckwinkle's bond court proposal is a work in progress. The county identified a larger space for attorney-arrestee interviews. The county also hired seven employees to study cases and reduce the backlog of detainees waiting for hearings on their motions to reconsider the bond amount.
Asked if her past role as Evans' campaign rival affects her chances of implementing change, Preckwinkle talked about time.
"It was 20 years ago," she said, adding that she talked to Evans after she won the primary for county board president in 2010.
"I said, 'You know, look, we both have concerns about disparities in the way the criminal justice system impacts African-Americans in particular but also Latinos. So we have some common interest and I hope to work with you.' And that's where we are."
None of the elected officials — Evans, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, State's Attorney Anita M. Alvarez and Circuit Clerk Dorothy A. Brown — granted interview requests for this story.
Brown issued a statement that bond court is Evans' responsibility and Preckwinkle's interest in it "hopefully means that funds will be properly allocated to the court system to ensure that it continues to run effectively."
More than just a money issue
Part of the challenge in the relationship between the president's office and the courts involves separation of power issues.
"The president of the county board … can't tell Judge Evans how to run the court system," said County Commissioner Lawrence J. Suffredin Jr., a partner at Shefsky & Froelich Ltd.
"But it's difficult to not want to tell them how to run when you're the one charged with the responsibility of funding it. I think she's done a good job up to now, but now it's going to be more difficult," Suffredin said, referring to upcoming budget talks as the county's next fiscal year begins Dec. 1.
Despite the friction, Suffredin said Preckwinkle and Evans are "both professional enough to work their way through it."
County Commissioner John Daley, who chairs the board's finance committee, said "any time you could improve the system, it's a plus for the taxpayers and for the defendants and those who are going through the criminal justice system."
"And I think it has to be reviewed and what worked maybe 15 years ago might not be working today. … And that's where she's coming from, her point of view. And these have not been modified and changed for the improvement of the system."
A key for Preckwinkle to work with other elected officials, County Commissioner Peter N. Silvestri said, entails knowing the line between involvement and interference.
"She's been fairly good at maintaining that line," Silvestri said. "If the county board is responsible for funding the government, she has the responsibility to make sure that money is well spent."
But the criminal justice system isn't just a financial issue for her.
When she visited bond court this year to observe the proceedings, two young men faced charges of marijuana possession. Nobody showed up to pay the $200 bail.
"You just knew," Preckwinkle said, "they were going to sit in jail for God knows how long because nobody would come up with $200. … So it was heartbreaking."
Coming tomorrow: Preckwinkle advocates for more electronic monitoring and juvenile justice reform.