In television dramas, a criminal defendant who wins an acquittal walks out of court a free man into the arms of his family and the lights of the cameras.
And in most places, it really works something like that, assuming there are any family or cameras in attendance.
In the Cook County Criminal Court Building, though, the theoretically free man returns instead to the waiting arms of a sheriff’s deputy who places him in a holding cell behind the judge’s chambers with the other inmates and may also put him in handcuffs or other restraints.
Later, the “free man” is moved into another larger holding cell with even more inmates on the “bridge”—the grim basement tunnel between the courthouse and the jail–with no effort made to differentiate between the free man and the others, including someone who may have just been convicted.
After a few more steps, the “free man” may be returned to his jail cell, but not without first being required to change back into his jail uniform if he has worn street clothes to court as usually happens in a jury trial.
By longstanding practice, only then do jail officials process the paperwork to make sure everything is in order to actually set the free man free. Beginning to end, this can take hours.
Some consider such treatment unconstitutional, and it certainly seems unfair.
This week a federal judge agreed to grant them their day in court, certifying a class action lawsuit against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on behalf of all jail detainees “who were found not guilty, acquitted, or had the charges brought against them dismissed” since April 27, 2010.
Thousands of former inmates could be affected with the number growing daily, said lawyer Jacie Zolna of Myron Cherry & Associates. Jail officials counter that relatively few individuals fall into this category.
The law firm brought the case last year for a man who claims to have been beaten by other inmates during the nine-hour period between a jury finding him innocent of burglary and jail officials finally granting his release.
The order by U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve does not decide the matter, but allows the suit to proceed to trial.
Zolna said the class action suit not only seeks damages on behalf of those affected but also asks the court to order the sheriff to change the procedures.
Jail officials say in the past year Dart has already initiated a new system for defendants transported from the jail to any of the county’s outlying courthouses, giving them the option of being released on the spot if acquitted or returned to the jail.
Only two have chosen immediate release, the rest opting to ride the bus with the other inmates back to the jail where they could pick up their belongings, officials said.
I can understand that most to-be-freed inmates would probably not want to be stranded in a suburban courthouse, freedom or not, but I’d also bet most of them would prefer to no longer be treated like inmates in the interim.
At the main criminal courthouse at 26th and California, inmates who have been acquitted are now returned to the jail’s processing center and may choose to be released from there instead of going back to their cells, an option also now available to those brought back from the suburban courts.
The jail’s policy of treating acquitted inmates the same as anyone else and returning them to jail has been an issue in two previous class action lawsuits settled by Cook County. In the most recent, taxpayers paid out $3.7 million in 2011.
The sheriff’s office has long defended the practice of returning everyone to jail, attributing it to the logistical necessities of operating the massive jail complex and transporting 1,500 inmates back and forth to court each day. Some acquitted inmates may have other court cases or warrants requiring them to stay in jail, which can only be tracked through an antiquated paper record system, officials say.
The emphasis obviously is on caution in making sure they’re releasing only the correct individuals, because let’s face it: the public—and the press—make a lot bigger stink about one jail inmate being mistakenly released than about hundreds being kept in jail hours after being set free by the courts.
That’s the political reality. The legal reality may be another multi-million dollar payout with taxpayers again on the hook.