How COVID-19 is Impacting Chicago’s Criminal Justice System and How Public Safety Agencies are Responding

April 09, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on all sectors, including the criminal justice system. How are the public safety agencies in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois responding to the public health emergency?

Cook County Jail

On March 9, the day Illinois Governor JB Pritzker declared a state of emergency, the Cook County Jail had about 5,700 people in jail (“behind the walls”) and another 2,430 people under the Sheriff’s custody on community supervision (electronic monitoring). The vast majority of the jail population consists of people being held pretrial, either because they were ordered to be detained while awaiting trial or because they could not pay their bond.

Advocates have been urging State and County leaders to release inmates and detainees, noting that jails and prisons are ripe for spread of the disease because of the close quarters, lack of space and poor cleanliness. The Chicago Community Bond Fund and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, among many other groups, have called on the Cook County Chief Judge and Sheriff to release pretrial defendants from the Cook County Jail, including approximately 25%, or 1,500 detainees, who are being held because they were unable to pay money bond required for their release. On March 20, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli filed a petition requesting the immediate release of detainees at elevated risk of COVID-19 due to health conditions, pregnant women, defendants being held on misdemeanor charges and non-violent class 3 and class 4 felony charges, defendants deemed bailable but who could not afford to pay their money bond, nonviolent detainees being held for a parole or probation violation, detainees serving sentences and defendants ordered to electronic monitoring who were not released because they have no place to stay.

The petition pointed out examples in other jurisdictions where detainees have been released, including Cleveland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Charlotte, Tampa, several counties in Texas, several counties in Pennsylvania, Washington County in Oregon and Spokane County in Washington. The petition also cites jurisdictions that are directing police not to arrest low-level and non-violent offenses (primarily misdemeanors). A New Jersey judge ordered the release of defendants in jail for probation violations and for specific low-level offenses, which will affect up to 1,000 detainees.

A Cook County judge denied the Public Defender’s petition, and instead ordered cases to be reviewed individually. So far, 800 detainees have been released.

On April 3, advocates filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of detainees against the Cook County Sheriff arguing that the Cook County Jail is not preventing the spread of coronavirus. The lawsuit calls for the release of people over 65 or at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19. On April 9, a federal judge denied release of the detainees, but ordered the Cook County Sheriff to take precautions against coronavirus including testing detainees showing symptoms, providing soap and hand sanitizer to detainees and providing face masks to all detainees in quarantine.

As of April 8, the Cook County Jail was holding 4,508 people in jail and 2,669 on electronic monitoring.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the Cook County Jail increased from two first reported on March 23 to 251 detainees and 150 staff as of April 8, though not all detainees have been tested. Of those who have tested positive, 22 are hospitalized and 31 have been moved to a recovery facility. One detainee has died from coronavirus. A New York Times study indicated that the Cook County Jail “has emerged as the largest known source of U.S. virus infections.”

The Cook County Sheriff is using the former boot camp program facility on the jail campus to house the detainees who test positive for the virus, as well as those awaiting test results. The facility has capacity for 500 detainees in isolation beds. County officials said there is adequate space in the jail buildings to ensure isolation and reduce transmission of the virus. However, detainees and corrections officers have said that the measures are not adequate.

Illinois Prisons

There are approximately 37,000 people in Illinois prisons throughout the State who have been convicted and are serving sentences. This number is down by about 1,000 from February.

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) website, as of April 8, 112 inmates and 79 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. All IDOC facilities have been closed to visitors, and facilities with confirmed cases are on lockdown, meaning no movement around the facility is allowed except for medical care.

The majority of cases—95 inmates and 44 staff—are at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. Two Stateville prisoners have died from coronavirus-related illness. The medical director at nearby St. Joseph Medical Center, where infected inmates are being taken for treatment, said the hospital is overwhelmed and fears the number of prison deaths could exceed 100. The National Guard is being sent to set up a healthcare facility to treat Stateville patients.

On March 26, Governor Pritzker issued an executive order suspending all admissions to the Illinois Department of Corrections from all Illinois county jails. This order received opposition from county sheriffs, who argue that it puts more strain on county jails that are already at high risk.

IDOC had released 300 inmates as of March 31, including pregnant women and people with low-level offenses near the end of their sentence.

On April 2, a group of civil rights attorneys and community advocates filed three cases seeking the release of IDOC prisoners—a federal class action suit against the Governor and Illinois Department of Corrections, a federal habeus corpus action and a direct action to the Illinois Supreme Court. The class action lawsuit argues that IDOC is not acting with any sense of urgency and that the IDOC medical program is already under-resourced and ill-equipped to manage the COVID-19 medical emergency. The lawsuit requests the release of six categories of inmates: 1) people with serious underlying health conditions; 2) people who are medically vulnerable because they are 55 years of age or older; 3) people 55 years of age or older with one year or less remaining on their sentence and are eligible for home detention (excluding those convicted of sexual assault offenses); 4) people in custody for Class 2, 3 or 4 offenses who are eligible for home detention; 5) people in custody for Class 1 or Class X offenses with fewer than 90 days remaining on their sentence; and 6) people scheduled to be released within 180 days and who are eligible to receive sentencing credit. The lawsuit estimates that, combined, all six of these categories would affect 34,216 people currently in custody.

Governor Pritzker issued an executive order on April 6 giving IDOC permission to temporarily release medically vulnerable inmates as long as the state of emergency is in place.

Cook County Courts

Many operations of the Cook County Circuit Court have been suspended, with exceptions including bail and preliminary hearings and emergency matters. The Cook County Chief Judge issued an executive order delaying hearings in all new civil and criminal cases for 30 days beginning March 17 through April 15. The executive order made exceptions for several matters that will proceed: bail hearings, arraignments and preliminary hearings; plea agreements to conclude a case; jury trials already in progress; child abuse and neglect cases; domestic violence petitions for orders of protection; emergency petitions in child support matters; and other emergency requests in civil matters.

A second executive order issued by the Chief Judge on March 30 extends the original order by another 30 days through May 18. This order also directs that beginning April 16, all hearings must be conducted via video conference (currently bail hearings at Leighton Criminal Courthouse are being conducted via video conferencing), and beginning April 6 through May 18, the three Chicago branch courts will be closed and all emergency matters will be heard at Leighton.

As of April 8, 15 employees of the Circuit Court Clerk and 13 employees of the Chief Judge have tested positive for COVID-19.

The court case delays bring into question how these delays will impact the Circuit Court after regular operations resume and criminal defendants’ right to speedy trial.

In addition to the changes enacted by the Chief Judge, the Cook County State’s Attorney announced on March 30 that all State’s Attorney employees at the Domestic Violence Court Building at 555 W. Harrison will be sent home for 14 days following a prosecutor testing positive for COVID-19. This has led to confusion about how domestic violence victims can file charges and obtain orders of protection.

Chicago Crime

Chicago crime statistics indicate that the stay-at-home order enacted by Governor Pritzker on March 21 may be decreasing crime rates in some crime categories. At a press conference on March 24, Interim Chicago Police Department Superintendent Charlie Beck said that there had been a decrease in violent crime, calls for service, citations and low-level arrests. He said emergency 911 calls were down 30%.

Chicago Police Department (CPD) statistics for the week of March 23-29 show that crime complaints citywide within several major categories were down compared to the same week in 2019. Murders were down by 77%, with three reported that week compared to 13 the same week last year. Burglary and theft complaints were down by 32% and 40%, respectively. However, in the 28-day period through March 29, shooting incidents were 6% higher than the same 28-day period in 2019, with 133 shooting incidents in March of this year compared to 125 last year. Other cities including New York and Philadelphia have also seen crime reductions.

Crime statistics for the week of March 30 through April 5 were not quite as promising, with the number of murders, robberies and motor vehicle thefts increasing from the prior week. However, the number of criminal sexual assaults and aggravated batteries were down compared to the week prior. The number of shooting incidents remained about the same as the prior week. CPD says it is monitoring the number of murders and shootings closely, noting that shooting crimes in Chicago tend to rise as the weather gets warmer.

The coronavirus crisis has required Chicago police to serve on the front line of both public safety and public health, as officers have been called to enforce the stay at home order and keep people from congregating in parks.

The Chicago Police Department has advised officers to issue ordinance violations in response to low-level crimes rather than making physical arrests, in order to reduce the health risks associated with contact between officers and the public. The Cook County State’s Attorney is also declining to prosecute nonviolent low-level drug offenses during the epidemic because the Illinois State Police forensic labs have stopped accepting evidence in drug cases, and without narcotics testing prosecutors do not have a “good faith” basis to proceed with charges. Cases that are dropped can be reevaluated for indictment by a grand jury after the labs begin testing again.

There have been 112 COVID-19 cases reported among CPD employees (108 of those are officers) and one death, and about 1,000 officers have called out sick. The Police Department has approximately 14,000 employees.

Public safety agencies will continue to adjust and respond to the rapidly changing situation, and the Civic Federation will continue to update readers on the actions taken.