As coronavirus spreads in Cook County jail, 300 people have been released

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Updated on March 25 at 7:30 p.m. with new figures and a statement from the sheriff’s office.

As the coronavirus begins to spread inside the walls of the Cook County jail, officials have released at least 300 people so far this week, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

But about 180 people were booked into the jail on Monday and Tuesday, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of the sheriff’s data.

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As of Wednesday evening, at least 17 detainees and five employees had tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the sheriff’s office, with test results pending for 31 other inmates.

On Monday, Cook County Judge LeRoy Martin, who oversees the court’s criminal division, ordered expedited hearings on releasing inmates with underlying health issues, those facing misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges, and those with money bonds they can’t afford.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli had argued in court Monday for a broader release of hundreds of detainees who fit those categories and whose release prosecutors had agreed to. But the State’s Attorney opposed her motion, and Judge Martin ruled that the courts must make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The Cook County Jail population has dropped by 300 people, or about five percent, since the beginning of March.

In an emailed statement, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office said it “has stood ready to reduce the jail population responsibly in the interest of both public health and safety.” However, the statement also blasted Campanelli for allegedly petitioning for the release of some people who have been charged with violent crimes, including murder and domestic violence.

Campanelli’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The jail’s overall population has decreased by five percent since the beginning of March, when the first positive case of the coronavirus hit Illinois, with most of that change coming in the past week. As of Wednesday morning, about 5,300 people were locked in the jail, according to sheriff’s data.

“A lower population at the jail is something that is good for our staff and for the detainees who are released,” said Matt Walberg, a spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. “This helps protect our staff and detainees by creating more space for distancing in the jail. This flexibility allows us to continue additional measures to aggressively combat the spread. We’ve been supportive of our partners efforts to release non-violent offenders and we will continue to provide them the information they request.”

Activists had asked 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 last Thursday.

On Wednesday, advocates said the courts still weren’t moving quickly enough.

“We’re moving slowly in the right direction, but certainly not at the speed that we’ve seen in other jurisdictions and not at the speed necessary for folks to get the health outcomes they deserve,” said Sharone Mitchell, a former public defender and director of the Illinois Justice Project, one of the advocacy groups that signed the letter. “The idea that an individual case-by-case determination would be the most efficient way of doing this is incorrect.”

In other states, judges have released people from jails en masse. In New Jersey, for example, the state’s chief justice ordered all those jailed on probation violations or municipal court violations released from county jails, expected to be close to 1,000 people, according to The New York Times. In Los Angeles, Sheriff Alex Villanueva released about 1,700 of the county’s 15,000 jail inmates, according to CBS News.

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