More than half of the 41,000 warrants on the books in Cook County are at least a decade old — and they can come back to haunt people who have moved on with their lives, according to the sheriff’s office.
Someone stopped for a traffic violation can end up in jail for weeks without bond until a judge resolves a warrant issued decades earlier, said Cara Smith, chief of policy for Sheriff Tom Dart.
“We see this all the time,” Smith said.
Dart supports legislation requiring that warrants expire five years after they’re issued. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Arthur Turner, D-Chicago, wouldn’t apply retroactively. But with nearly 15,000 warrants issued in 2016 alone, it could help reduce the backlog in the future, sheriff’s officials say.
Turner’s bill recently passed the House Judiciary Criminal Committee but has yet to be voted on by the full House.
Most warrants are resolved quickly, but the huge volume of them leaves tens of thousands on the books for decades, according to the sheriff’s office.
“I look at the state of warrants as a subset of unjust incarceration,” Smith said, adding that the bill would provide some accountability for those who issue warrants.
Under Turner’s bill, prosecutors could ask the court to extend a warrant longer than five years.
According to a sheriff’s office study of 41,149 warrants that were outstanding in Cook County on Jan. 19, most were issued because a defendant had violated a judge’s conditions of probation or supervision — such as passing a drug test or doing community service.
In 1994, a judge issued such a warrant for Latasha Eatman after she failed to complete her sentence of community service for a marijuana conviction for which she received probation.
On Oct. 13, Chicago Police officers arrested the 43-year-old woman on the warrant and she spent almost two months in jail until the issue was resolved. The officers discovered her warrant when they checked her name during a license investigation of a South Side store where she worked.
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It wasn’t until Dec. 2 that the Cook County state’s attorney’s office withdrew her violation of probation and a judge terminated the case, freeing her. She missed Thanksgiving and her son’s birthday while in jail.
Eatman thought she might be sent to prison for a year.
“She was terrified,” Smith said.
On Tuesday, Javier Medina, 49, is scheduled to appear in court on a warrant for a probation violation. The warrant was issued in 2005 after he failed to appear in court for his appeal of a drug conviction for which he received probation.
A Chicago Police officer arrested Medina on the warrant after stopping his car for a traffic violation on Sept. 28. He’s been held without bond in the jail ever since.
Many of the warrants the sheriff’s office studied were issued after a defendant failed to show up for court and the judge revoked the defendant’s bond. Most of those bond forfeitures occurred in cases involving charges of drug offenses, drunken driving and traffic violations.
Only a fraction of the warrants — about one in eight — were issued for the arrest of someone who was charged with committing a new crime, the study found.
About one in five warrants in Cook County were at least 20 years old and about 3,000 of them were for people who would be 65 or older today, according to the sheriff’s office.