CHICAGO (MCT) — Cook County Jail workers say they battle faded ink and subpar penmanship in trying to decipher reams of handwritten legal orders that determine who gets released, who is sent to a cell and when inmates are due back in court.
Sheriff Tom Dart on Wednesday said the county's antiquated records system increases the potential for human error. Dart, who is pushing for more computerized records, has been criticized in recent months after mistakes his department made wrongly allowed inmates to go free. In one case, a man in the middle of a lengthy murder sentence was released onto the street before being rearrested.
"I don't think there's anyone on the planet that would think, in the 21st century, this is how we should be operating," Dart said. "If we had basic technology that would go directly from the courtroom to our records department via the Internet, that would probably end 95 percent of the problems."
The records are under the purview of Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown. In a statement, Brown's office said Wednesday that repeated efforts to create an interdepartment electronic records system for the criminal court have been "continually met with resistance or disinterest."
Brown remains ready to work with Dart and others to create an integrated records system, according to the statement.
As it stands, jail workers must sometimes read barely legible case numbers that snake around the edge of an entire piece of paper. In other cases, arrows and highlighter markers are used to draw attention to the latest in a series of court dates written on a single page. Officials said at least one or two cases a night require a phone call to a clerk or judge because an order isn't clear.
Three mistaken releases this year show that the consequences of misinterpreted instructions can be grave.
In January, convicted murderer Steven Robbins was released after appearing in court on a 1992 armed robbery case. Robbins, who was later rearrested, was in the middle of a 60-year murder sentence in Indiana.
Steven Derkits was wrongly released in July after being charged with beating his girlfriend. He then went on to attack her again, authorities said.
And just last month, state prisoner Jeremiah Harris was released from Cook County custody after his acquittal in a murder case. Harris, however, was already serving a 12-year sentence on a 2009 armed habitual criminal conviction.
Dart concedes that better computerized records wouldn't solve every problem, but he's confident they would make a difference. In the Robbins case, he said, about a dozen people handled the paper file on the Indiana murderer.
"In a world that is populated by humans, will there always be human error? Of course," Dart said. "When you can start cutting down on the shuffling of paper to different people's hands, you can start dramatically cutting down the possibility of human error."
Still, change has been slow to take hold. In nearly 30 years with the county, Michael Holmes said the records system has failed to evolve even as the jail's population has ballooned. Often, more than 10,000 inmates populate the expansive complex.
"All I see in changes is more inmates, more paperwork," said Holmes, the jail's assistant director. "But the system is still the same."
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