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Jail population falls to record low as COVID-19 measures take hold

Headcount falls to 5,003; Sheriff Tom Dart to reopen “bootcamp” as hospital for infected.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaks at a press conference about plans for Cook County Jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Friday March 27, 2020.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaks at a press conference about plans for Cook County Jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Friday March 27, 2020.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The Cook County Jail population dropped to its lowest level in decades this week after judges began a sweeping review of criminal cases in an effort to clear space to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The jail population Friday had fallen to 5,003 — down by 400 or so detainees who were there on Monday when Chief Criminal Court Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. ordered case-by-case bond reassessments of those charged with mostly non-violent offenses.

As the reviews began Tuesday and continued through the week, judges ordered the immediate release of inmates who were determined to not pose a threat to the public.

On Monday, officials announced the first two confirmed case of COVID-19 at the jail. By Friday, the jail had logged 38 confirmed cases. Nine sheriff’s office employees also tested positive for COVID-19.

Friday, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle touted safety precautions that have been underway as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dart said long-unused sections of the jail have been quickly rehabbed; a former boot camp will reopen as a hospital for the infected, and the smaller population will allow for more “social distancing” within the close quarter and the use of single cells in place of the typical double-bunking of inmates.

“We have to be under no illusions here, there’s no notion we’re going to be able to empty the jail,” Dart said. “We have to be able to house them in a safe and thoughtful way.”

The jail routinely housed more than 11,000 inmates when Dart assumed office in 2007, in a 96-acre campus of buildings built to hold 10,600. Overcrowding was one of the factors that prompted a federal consent decree that put the jail under federal oversight for some 40 years, ending in 2017.

The population at the jail, the second-largest in the nation and the largest correctional facility in Illinois, has fallen steadily. Since Chief Judge Timothy Evans in 2017 mandated a new system for the courts’ bond hearing system, the jail headcount has hovered around 5,500.

The latest number of confirmed COVID 19 cases at Cook County Jail — 38 — is less than half of the number of infected detainees housed in the New York City, where officials Friday reported 103 positive COVID-19 cases across multiple lockups in the city’s correctional system.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks at a press conference about plans for Cook County Jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks at a press conference about plans for Cook County Jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Preckwinkle, a longtime advocate for bond reform, Friday noted that jails and prisons are a “petri dish” for infection, likening them to cruise ships and nursing homes where coronavirus has spread rapidly.

“There’s no question we’re in a fight, and this is the fight of our lives,” Preckwinkle said. “It’s a fight for our family members’ lives and our sheriff’s deputies’ lives. And here at the Cook County Jail, it’s a fight for the lives of those who are innocent until proven guilty.”