How Cook County lost track of hundreds of convicts

Jesse Reyes of the Adult Probation Department with the State of Illinois
Circuit Court of Cook County. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

The Cook County probation department has lost track of hundreds of convicts and overlooked curfew violations and new crimes committed by offenders, some of whom went on to rape or kill while under the court's watch, a Tribune investigation found.

At a time when county officials have argued for more people to be redirected from jail cells to programs such as probation, the Tribune has found a dysfunctional department that falls short of its mission of holding offenders accountable and creating safer neighborhoods.

Perhaps no case is more emblematic of the problems in the probation department than that of Micheail Ward, a gang member accused of killing 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton this year.

While it was known at the time that Ward violated his probation, internal documents obtained by the Tribune reveal the extent to which the department systematically failed to monitor Ward and other convicts under its supervision.

Ward's slide began three months into his sentence when he broke his court-ordered curfew. On probation for carrying a loaded pistol, Ward went on to repeatedly disobey curfew and pick up three new arrests.

The probation department could have tightened Ward's monitoring or sought his return to jail. Instead, the agency stopped checking on him at home and failed to detect two of his new arrests, or hold him accountable for breaking curfew, records show.

Ward, 19, was on the streets in January when prosecutors say he shot and killed Hadiya, who a week earlier had performed with her high school band during President Barack Obama's inauguration. Her death brought international attention to the gun violence on Chicago streets.

Little public scrutiny, however, fell upon the probation department and its inability to properly monitor Ward and others.

Jesus "Jesse" Reyes, who has been the acting chief probation officer since 2005, defended his department's overall record but acknowledged mistakes.

"I think that, by and large, the department and its people do a good job," Reyes said in an interview. "I think we do have some elements that need to change, and those are the ones that will hit the news."

'Paper tiger'

Ward was one of roughly 24,000 convicts under the watch of the Circuit Court of Cook County Adult Probation Department.

The department, with some 550 employees and a $37 million budget, is under the supervision of Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

Evans said the adult probation department is underfunded and understaffed, saying "the sad result is that public safety suffers."

"I want to be clear that I will do whatever is necessary to ensure the public is protected and that probationers are given the chance to turn their lives around," he said in a statement.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle disagreed with Evans. She said the problems in adult probation stem not from a lack of money, but a "lack of management."

"We have fulfilled the chief judge's requests for extra positions throughout the year," Preckwinkle said in a statement. "Before we provide additional staff or resources to any office, it's critical we have data to justify that the investment will produce results. Otherwise, we are throwing good money after bad — spending more, yet, not necessarily improving outcomes."

Evans said he is conducting a review, but multiple people within the department told the Tribune the agency is divided over its role — pulled between the sometimes dueling missions of law enforcement and social service.

On one side, they said, some see the department's purpose as rehabilitative, helping people return to their neighborhoods and encouraging them to get a diploma and a job.

The other side, however, believes the department is too soft and must aggressively hold offenders accountable when they violate conditions of their release, mockingly referring to the alternative approach as "hug a thug."