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Jail population dips slightly on first day of court-ordered bond reviews

Public Defender, civil rights advocate called for thousands of detainees to be released amid coronavirus outbreak.

A guard tower at the Cook County Jail.
A guard tower at the Cook County Jail, where the inmate population dropped slightly Tuesday as judges began a court-ordered review of all cases geared toward releasing low-risk offenders over fears of coronavirus infection.
Sun-Times file photo

The Cook County jail population dipped slightly Tuesday, the first day of court hearings geared to drastically reduce the population inside the lockup and tamp down the spread of the coronavirus.

But the population of the Cook County Jail dipped only slightly Tuesday. Statistics posted on the jail website Tuesday afternoon listed the jail population at 5,355, just 72 inmates fewer than Monday, when Judge LeRoy K. Martin ordered a case-by-case review intended to clear a broad array of prisoners.

In a statement issued Tuesday night, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Public Defender Amy Campanelli sparred over whether the slow pace of releases had been stalled by an emergency motion seeking to see detainees released en masse, and that several violent offenders had been included among the cases up for review.

Foxx’s office said it had been prepared to the release of some 400 detainees following a review of 1,200 cases based on negotiations with the Public Defender, cases that were derailed by Campanelli’s petition Friday. In a ruling Monday, Judge LeRoy K. Martin instead ordered the case-by-case review, with individual judges making rulings on whether specific categories of non-violent offenders could be released.

“As we stated yesterday, our staff urgently reviewed more than 1,200 cases this weekend and agreed to more than 400 releases,” state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman Aviva Bowen said in an email.

Campanelli had said that 10 days of negotiations leading up filing her petition had resulted in the release of only 100 of her clients, and she first heard that prosecutors would consent to the release of 400 inmates in court Monday.

Campanelli conceded that several defendants facing charges for violent offenses had accidentally been included in the cases reviewed Tuesday, which was not allowed by Martin’s order. Those cases were removed from dockets, Campanelli said.

“We never saw any list from (prosecutors) of 400 names,” Campanelli said. “And the violent cases were removed. It was the first day of a new process.”

The spread of the disease at the jail was top of mind for many officials across the Chicago area as judges began a court-ordered review of cases that is intended to drastically reduce the population of the sprawling county jail complex where the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported Monday.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called for the release of prisoners at the jail and in juvenile detention, while a suburban police chief suggested suspending bond hearings to reduce arrestees’ and officers’ presence at the lockup.

The number was well below the number needed to protect the health of jail inmates, said Locke Bowman, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University.

“The population of the jail needs to be dramatically reduced, not by a few hundred, but by a four-digit number,” said Bowman, who last week wrote a brief supporting Campanelli’s request for a mass release of prisoners from the jail.

Campanelli had estimated the number of detainees who could be released without posing a public safety threat could number more than 1,000. As of Tuesday, her office estimated that around 100 detainees had been released after receiving new bond hearings.

It was unclear whether how many, if any, of the 400 inmates prosecutors had determined were safe to release were among the defendants whose cases were reviewed Tuesday.

At the criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue, a half-dozen judges, their clerks and courtroom attorneys sat in empty courtrooms poring over case files.

Defendants were not present, and the assembled courtroom complements seldom looked up from the paperwork in front of them. A handful of private attorneys were on hand, and others spoke at the hearing using teleconference video. Each day this week, another set of judges will review every case brought forth by a defense lawyer on their docket.

Defense attorney Jayne Ingles, one of a handful of private attorneys who appeared in person Tuesday, was able to win the release of a 54-year-old client who had been serving out a mandatory 180-day sentence for driving with a suspended license.

“He’s at risk for complications if he gets (COVID-19) and he only had 59 days left. He’s safer outside,” Ingles said as she left the courthouse, wearing latex gloves.

Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitz on Tuesday sent a letter to Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Foxx, calling on them to cancel bond hearings and allow police “command personnel” to set recognizance bonds for arrestees and release them from a police station for any charge short of murder, attempted murder, sexual assault or kidnapping.

“No individual, arrestee or not, should have to be transported for a Bond Hearing to a facility during this critical time in dealing with COVID19,” Weitz wrote in the letter.

Also Tuesday, Preckwinkle, who appointed Campanelli and has served as a political mentor to Foxx, issued a statement calling for a review of bond status for all jail inmates, as well as the 150 youth in custody at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

“Regardless of the current public health pandemic, many of the people currently detained will all (sic) be released from jail due to their pretrial status or short sentences. The only question is when: before or after they are infected with COVID-19?” the statement reads.