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County officials back legislation to make sure arrestees get their phone calls

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Public Defender Amy Campanelli and Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore stand with criminal justice reform advocates from First Defense Legal Aid Tuesday to talk about their proposed legislation that would give arrestees access to a phone within one hour of being detained. | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, other county officials and criminal justice reform advocates announced Tuesday a bill to ensure people who are arrested get to call their attorney or a family member within the first hour of being in police custody.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said arrestees don’t always get to make the three completed calls to their attorney, a family member or acquaintance provided under the law.

Less than 30 percent of clients said they were offered access to a phone before being questioned by police, according to a survey the public defender’s office did from January to March 2018. Last year, only 1.5 percent of people arrested in Chicago got a lawyer within three days of being in a police station, said Eliza Solowiej, the executive director of First Defense Legal Aid.

Campanelli said those figures could be related to the wording of the current law, which says an arrestee can communicate with their attorney “within a reasonable time after arrival at the first place of custody.”

“The vagueness around what is reasonable should not be left to the interpretation by the police, especially when we know that their interpretation of the law, for decades, has not been reasonable at all,” Campanelli said.

Campanelli’s office is tasked with representing anyone in the county who is arrested and detained by law enforcement. She said that litigating the issue of phone access on a case-by-case basis doesn’t bring systemic change and the proposed legislation would clarify current laws.

The bill would also make sure police stations are equipped with signs that tell people of their right to have access to a phone and that they can make three calls to an attorney, a relative or an acquaintance.

It is sponsored in the Illinois House by two Chicago Democratic Reps. Justin Slaughter and Theresa Mah.

Preckwinkle said the draft legislation is part of the county’s pursuit of criminal justice reforms and that a change to the state law will hopefully mean “compliance from our own Chicago Police Department and police departments in our region.”