The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has challenged the vast majority of motions to reduce bond or release defendants from the Cook County Jail since the coronavirus outbreak, according to data from the public defender’s office.
Since March 23, when the first two detainees at the jail tested positive for COVID-19, Public Defender Amy Campanelli’s office has identified 3,008 people for release. Of those, the state’s attorney’s office agreed to release 495 people, according to Crystal Gray, the deputy of suburban operations for the public defender. Judges granted the release of all but 34.
But assistant state’s attorneys contested the release of the remaining 83 percent of defendants, Gray said. Of those, only 46 percent were released.
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The jail has been a hot spot for the coronavirus. As of Thursday, 536 total detainees and 411 sheriff’s employees have tested positive for the virus, though about three-quarters of them have since recovered, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of Cook County Sheriff’s Office data. Seven detainees and three staff have died.
The number of people in the jail has dropped by more than 25 percent since the start of the pandemic in late March, but the population has leveled off since the beginning of May, according to Injustice Watch’s analysis. As of Friday, there were 4,061 people detained at the jail.
Early on in the crisis, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office issued a statement affirming its commitment to “releasing individuals charged with non-violent, low-level offenses as quickly as possible in the midst of this unprecedented health crisis.” However, public defenders and private defense attorneys say they consistently face opposition from assistant state’s attorneys at bond hearings.
One public defender who was not authorized to speak publicly said that the public defender’s office is experiencing “extreme frustration” at the state’s opposition.
“There was a huge flurry at the beginning [of the pandemic]. Everyone was trying to get clients out on bond,” the public defender said. “They were just shutting it down.”
A spokesperson for the state’s attorney’s office said in an email that the office “continues to review bail hearings during this unprecedented time on a case by case basis, with a specific focus on our top priority of public safety while balancing public health.” They also noted that the statistics from the public defender’s office were approximate and “may not be inclusive of all available public data.”
However, no agency regularly collects data on bond hearings. The public defender’s office began collecting the data after requests from the mayor and the county board president for emergency bond statistics. Gray and others said they believe that ordinarily, the state’s attorney’s office opposes release at an even higher rate than they have since the outbreak began.
“I get Kim’s position, but that’s never going to discourage us from doing what we gotta do,” she said.
An analysis by Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, using data from both the public defender’s office and the state’s attorney’s office, also found that state’s attorneys have opposed release 70 to 80 percent of the time during the pandemic.
“In the past, State’s Attorney Foxx has been an outspoken critic of the overuse of pretrial incarceration, but her office’s decisions during this pandemic do not reflect the same serious commitment to reduce over-incarceration and promote justice in Chicago,” Staudt wrote.
Matthew McLoughlin, director of programs for the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said that Foxx has several options available to reduce the jail population. She could decline to file new charges in cases that don’t involve harm to another person, like technical violations of probation. Or she could agree to release all people who are currently in jail for misdemeanors and Class 4 felonies.
“We know there are still people in those charge categories in there,” McLoughlin said. “The fact that we still have 4,000 people in jail is crazy.”