Cook County’s Inadequate Response to the COVID-19 Crisis at Cook County Jail Continues to Put Lives at Risk

Statement from Chicago Community Bond Fund and Chicago Appleseed

For the last two weeks, over 100 advocacy, community, legal organizations, and unions have called on Cook County to release people from the jail to protect public health. In that time, Cook County courts have released mere dozens of people from the jail, leaving over 5,000 people locked inside the jail’s inherently cramped and unsanitary confines. Cermak Hospital, the jail’s medical facility, is not equipped to deal with the unchecked spread of the deadly COVID-19. In just five days, the number of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail with COVID-19 went from 1 to 38. As of today, 50 incarcerated people have been tested and 31 are still waiting for their test results.

“At today’s press conference, Sheriff Dart and President Preckwinkle congratulated their fellow County decision-makers for their slow and inadequate response to this crisis. Releasing dozens of people is significant and important for each of those individuals, but it does almost nothing  to address the magnitude of the crisis at hand. Our elected officials are failing to appreciate the seriousness of this public health crisis in the jail. If we continue to move at our current glacial pace of release, hundreds of people will crowd and overwhelm our hospitals, and many of them will die. Although our county officials  talk about the need to release people, they continue to take action behind closed doors and in courtrooms that prevents just that. If a mass release does not happen quickly, we are ensuring more people will die unnecessarily.

On Monday, Cook County Criminal Division Presiding Judge LeRoy Martin denied a petition for mass release filed by Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli. In the wake of that decision, Cook County judges have continued the slow process of conducting individualized bond reviews. Line attorneys from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office have opposed the release of individuals facing both non-violent and “violent” charges. This has led to a mere trickle of people being released, while more people continue to be admitted to jail.

As recently as March 20, there were 97 people in Cook County Jail on a charge of retail theft. There were an additional 60 people incarcerated on the accusation that they drove with a suspended driver’s license.

Advocates have called for the release of everyone incarcerated in Cook County Jail on an unaffordable money bond, serving a misdemeanor sentence or accused of a probation violation. These actions would dramatically reduce the number of people incarcerated in the jail without endangering public safety. If a judge has given someone a money bond, it means that they have determined the person is cleared for pretrial release. Their ongoing incarceration due solely to access to money is deeply unfair and unethical, especially during this pandemic.

It is more urgent than ever that we begin decarcerating the jail to protect the lives of everyone there and in the public. The lack of action from our county officials is unacceptable. Unless thousands of people are released, the inevitable, exponential rise of COVID-19 infections in the jail will bring down the entire county’s health system. Decarceration is required for social distancing. It is impossible to flatten the curve while maintaining mass criminalization and mass incarceration. Cook County officials will have blood on their hands for dragging their feet over the last two weeks or more, when this inevitability came to light.

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