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Public Defender: Release Cook County Jail inmates who aren’t a threat

The office representing indigent defendants is seeking to have hundreds of inmates released because of the coronavirus threat.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli is seeking to have hundreds of jail inmates released because of the risk of infection with the coronavirus.
Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli is seeking to have hundreds of jail inmates released because of the risk of infection with the coronavirus.
Sun-Times file

The Cook County Public Defender Friday petitioned to have hundreds of inmates released from jail because of the risk of the coronavirus infection.

The motion filed seeks to have a review of the status of inmates in several broad categories, including those with medical conditions, pregnant women, non-violent offenders and those who are eligible for probation — making possibly hundreds of defendants eligible for release from among the approximately 5,600 inmates housed at the sprawling Cook County Jail complex.

The motion is set for a hearing Monday before Chief Criminal Courts Judge LeRoy K. Martin.

The move by the public defender’s office, which represents indigent defendants who make up the vast majority of the jail population, comes after prosecutors quietly agreed to release some 100 low-risk inmates this week after intensive review of their cases by prosecutors, Public Defender Amy Campanelli said.

“In eight days of meetings, with people in my office working on this full time, we’ve gotten hundred people out,” Campanelli said. “That’s not enough. There are too many people in the jail who don’t belong there even before. There are people there now that absolutely should be home with their families.”

Jail officials said Friday there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases and they have undertaken precautionary measures, including quarantining incoming detainees for seven days for observation before releasing them into general population. Visitation schedules at the jail have also been limited, and prisoner movement to and from the adjacent criminal courthouse also has been significantly curtailed as the courts moved to suspend all but “essential” matters system-wide.

Campanelli’s motion also calls for the release of any inmates who were granted a cash bond that they have not been able to pay. According to jail officials, there are 200 inmates currently who would need $1,000 or less to post bond. The motion also seeks the release of any defendant currently serving out his or her sentence at jail, which typically would include fairly low-level offenders since sentences longer than a year typically are served in a state prison.

Despite measures taken to heighten sanitation and limit exposure, the close quarters inside the jail make “social distancing” and other safety precautions impossible, the motion states.

“Like a cruise ship or a nursing home, the Cook County Jail is an environment in which the COVID-19 virus can easily gain a foothold and, when it does, spread rapidly,” the motion reads.

“It would be ostrich-like to presume that no harm will befall prisoners and detainees within the Jail because COVID-19 has yet to be detected there. Detection is imminent, as exposure to the virus is occurring throughout Illinois and all of the United States. There are confirmed cases in every state.”