Fear of coronavirus not enough get out of jail, judge says

Lawyers for Lawndale legal aid, services group cites risk of COVID-19 infection as reason to release defendants on bond.

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The Leighton Criminal Courthouse at West 26th Street and California Avenue.

Andy Grimm for the Sun-Times

It was clear Cook County Judge Adrienne Davis was taking coronavirus seriously as she sped through her docket Wednesday at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse — but still taking time to have the lawyers, sheriff’s deputies and clerks pause for a “hand washing break.”

Davis wore blue latex glove as she handled court documents, and urged lawyers to keep their distance during hearings. On her desk, she had a canister of anti-bacterial cleanser. As a clerk left Davis’ courtroom, the judge reminded her to shower as soon as she got home and throw her clothes directly into the wash.

But when lawyers for the Lawndale Christian Legal Center sought to have two of their clients released on bond because they feared picking up COVID-19 inside the Cook County Jail, Davis said no.

“I am very sympathetic to what is going on now in our community outside,” Davis told lawyer Cathryn Crawford, who had argued her 20-year-old client was at risk of falling victim to the pandemic if not released on house arrest. Nonetheless, Crawford’s client, Tyson Smith, will remain one of the more than 5,000 inmates at the jail for the foreseeable future on a $50,000 cash bond on a charge of armed robbery.

Assistant State’s Attorney William Bruce pointed to a memo from Sheriff Tom Dart’s office, outlining new procedures to combat the spread of coronavirus inside the jail.

“Sure, they’ve cited the coronavirus as a reason to be released. But that effects everybody in this room,” he said. “The chief judge and the sheriff have taken substantial steps to ensure the safety and health of inmates.”

After the hearing, Crawford was not satisfied with the argument that her clients are in the same boat as thousands of other defendants awaiting trial amid a pandemic. Lawyers for the legal clinic filed motions to reduce bond for each of the nine clients they have in custody at the jail or Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. So far, only three have gotten bond.

“This is ridiculous. Hundreds of people are getting sick on cruise ships,” Crawford said. “How is the jail any better?”

Davis held off on a ruling on a request for bond for another of Crawford’s clients, opting to leave a decision on bond to a judge who is set to preside on a hearing in that case Thursday.

“We’re genuinely concerned about our clients’ health,” Crawford said, noting that visitation has been curtailed at the jail. “We can still visit them, but when we do that we’re acting against the advice of every public health official.”

Judge Neera Walsh, the other of two judges handling emergency and essential court hearings at the criminal court building Wednesday, also ruled against one of Crawford’s clients’ bid for a coronavirus-related release because he suffered from asthma.

Crawford was able to get a bond reduction for the two clients at a hearing Monday after raising coronavirus concerns among other reasons, though Crawford noted one judge made it clear that COVID-19 was not his main consideration.

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