As COVID-19 rips through Cook County Jail, time to take a hard look in the mirror

The obvious solution is to post bail for those who would be home if only they had the money to secure their freedom while awaiting rial.

SHARE As COVID-19 rips through Cook County Jail, time to take a hard look in the mirror

Cook County Jail

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

I know the justice system from a few perspectives.

My first contact came when I spent half my life dependent on heroin, cocaine and prescription pills. I cycled through Cook County Jail more than a dozen times until a drug-treatment court helped me pave a path to sobriety that reached a five-year anniversary this month.

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With stability and structure, I found a job providing employment services to people with criminal records like me. Today, I’m a regional director for The Bail Project, a national nonprofit that provides free bail assistance for those who cannot afford it, while working to end cash bail.

Whatever your opinions are regarding the ways we address the growing use of pretrial detention in America, I hope you’ll see that what is happening in Cook County Jail right now far exceeds the issue of bail. What we have is a human crisis that calls for action, compassion and courage.

This month, the jail hit an all-time high of more than 300 COVID-19 cases among the incarcerated population, and dozens among the jail staff. Scores of residents and public servants funnel in and out of the facility every day and return home to their communities. A hotspot at the jail creates a risk for all. Since the first COVID-19 case at the jail was reported in March, more than 1,100 people have tested positive inside the facility. Now with winter upon us, the jail’s infection totals have climbed back to April levels.

This threat to public health dictates that we must exhaust all avenues to drastically reduce the population of roughly 5,500 so social distancing is even an option inside the facility. The obvious answer, supported by the U.S. Constitution and Illinois law, is to post bail for those who would be home if only they had the money to secure their freedom while they await trial.

To address the crisis, The Bail Project has launched its second emergency bailout this year for people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. Our goal is to assist hundreds of people in the coming weeks and help reduce the jail population to slow the spread of the virus.Time is of the essence.

Let me be clear: Criminal acts are not OK. But neither is a justice system that says your income level determines whether you get your full constitutional protections when facing an accusation and, in the current context, contract COVID-19.

Furthermore, addressing the threat to public health by releasing people while their cases are pending does not harm public safety. A recent report by Loyola University Chicago confirmed this. We also know that nearly 30% of the people we have assisted in Cook County, whose cases have closed, had all of their charges dismissed orwere acquitted. This demonstrates why you can’t assume guilt just because a person is sitting in jail.

When we receive a request for bail assistance from a family member or a public defender, we interview the individual and try to understand the larger context of their case and their underlying needs that might be driving them into the system in the first place. We contact families, making sure there is family support and a place to stay. Finally, we work with organizations like the Safer Foundation and TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) to connect people to drug treatment, mental health specialists, housing, employment and other resources.

This approach not only stabilizes lives but has resulted in people attending 94% of their court dates without a financial obligation to us or the courts, providing ample evidence that cash bail is not needed in the first place.

When I tell people what I do, the opinions run to the extremes. Some think it’s the right thing to do. Others wonder how I can sleep at night helping someone who’s been accused of a crime walk out of jail.

I get it.

Crime is an everyday reality in Cook County, and solutions are hard to find. Too often, we focus on blame over answers. It’s a simple narrative to blame the bail process even when the data shows the contrary.

We can do better, and times like this demand we do.

We must continue creating alternatives to incarceration. The Cook County justice system did so 22 years ago by opening drug court, and similar efforts continue today with programs that embrace restorative practices in neighborhood settings — outside of traditional courtrooms — to unite the accused and victims to focus on healing.

Right now, we must reduce the jail population because lives depend on it. We must protect the health of those in jail to protect the health of all in society. And we must remember that we are all more than our own worst act and sometimes, people need a helping hand.

If our justice system didn’t take that approach, I wouldn’t be alive today.

Matthew McFarland is a regional director for The Bail Project.

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