On May 5, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart presented this year’s Andrew K. Prinz Guestship for Political Awareness at Elmhurst College.
Speaking to an enthusiastic audience of students and community members, the former prosecutor and state legislator talked about his unlikely path to the sheriff’s office and the difficulties of changing a county jail system entrenched in the status quo.
As Dart became disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of Springfield, he said, he sought an office where he could effect the most change without being stymied by politically based bureaucracy. Today, sheriff’s office policy hinges on the notion that “more of the same is not accepted, as more of the same has been proven to be ineffective.”
Since becoming the sheriff of Cook County in 2006, Dart has introduced sweeping changes to the Cook County Jail, the Sheriff’s Police force and the department that handles security for the county’s sprawling court system.
In 2009, Dart made national headlines by imposing a moratorium on homeowner evictions after the discovery that banks were robo-signing eviction papers. In the succeeding years, Dart’s efforts to humanize the eviction process has transformed a traumatic, forced removal into a process that involves connecting evictees with social services for help with legal issues, transportation or transitional housing.
By steadily eschewing tactics and policies of the past, Dart has dramatically altered the way the Sheriff’s Police handle prostitution arrests, inmates with mental illness and the identification and burial of the indigent.
Within the Cook County jail itself, Dart has instituted a sustainability initiative—with multiple gardens and an aquaponics system whose products are sold to high-end restaurants within the county. In addition to providing revenue, these projects help inmates gain marketable skills for life after prison.
In 2009, Dart was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.