Activists demand courts release detainees amid COVID-19 concerns

In an open letter to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, reform advocates are demanding the release of as many detainees as possible in order to mitigate risks related to the new coronavirus.

Legal and advocacy groups are calling on Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans to “immediately depopulate the jail and the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center as much as possible,” in an open letter released Thursday.

The reform groups demand that Evans order the release of detainees that are being held on “misdemeanors, technical violations of probation and pretrial release, and unpaid money bonds.” The letter also asks that Evans instruct judges to take the increased danger of being in jail during a pandemic into account when making rulings.

Pat Milhizer, a spokesperson for Evans, told Injustice Watch that the chief judge’s office is reviewing the letter and that Evans is working with prosecutors and public defenders to secure the release of detainees when possible.

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Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans

“The state’s attorney and the public defender provided a list of defendants who they will be agreeing should be released,” said Milhizer, noting that some of these cases were heard today. “The judges are issuing orders and directing the sheriff who should be released.”

The goal of the letter is to “get as many people out of the jail as possible so that they can do what the rest of us are doing and follow CDC directives,” according to Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney at Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and one of the authors of the letter.

The advocates also push judges to “recall or suspend all open warrants issued for reasons that do not impact public safety” and avoid issuing new warrants for missed court dates.

Prosecutors, public defenders and the sheriff’s office have worked to release several detainees who would be at high risk if they contracted the virus. But the advocates say that this does not match the scale of the problem.

“Chicago’s response to its jail population is really pretty far behind a lot of other municipalities who have acted to depopulate their jails,” Staudt said in an interview earlier this week. “I’ve been losing sleep on this.”

Officials in New York, Los Angeles and Cleveland have “freed hundreds of inmates” from jails over the last few weeks in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading, according to the BBC. In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Court used a special weekend session to push cases through their system, leading to the release of hundreds of detainees, according to news reports.

As of March 19, there were 5,567 people in the Cook County Jail, according to data from the Sheriff’s office. 1.3 percent, or approximately 72 of them, were 65 years old or older, putting them at increased risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the virus, and 6.5 percent, or approximately 360, were between 55 and 64 years old.

There are currently approximately 150 kids incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, according to the letter. “These youth are currently not in school, have no programming, and are not allowed family nor attorney visits,” according to the letter, which demands the chief judge “immediately release any child who is not an imminent public safety threat and whenever possible, halt all new admissions to the JTDC.”

Seventeen reform groups and bar associations have signed onto the letter, including the ACLU of Illinois, the Chicago Urban League, and Cabrini Green Legal Aid. The letter follows one sent late last week to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, by many of the same organizations, asking that the jail release all detainees who are currently held on a money bond as well as those who are over 50 or who have “compromised immune systems.”

In response to last week’s letter, which has now been signed by over 70 groups, Dart signaled that he is considering the release of more detainees, but emphasized that bond decisions are up to judges. A spokesperson for Dart told Injustice Watch that his office is working with public defenders, prosecutors and judges and “asking them to exercise their authority to broaden the release of at-risk detainees given these extraordinary circumstances.”

In addition to the demands for the jail, the groups urge Judge Evans to work with the Illinois Supreme Court to put in place “a statewide moratorium on all rental housing evictions and property tax sales,” citing recent actions in states like Delaware and Kentucky as examples to follow. Dart announced on Saturday that his office would suspend the execution of court-ordered evictions for 30 days.

On Tuesday, Public Defender Amy Campanelli wrote in an email to Injustice Watch that she is “advocating for the release of low level detainees, the elderly, pregnant women, people on the no place to stay list, and others [with] low cash bail amounts.”

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