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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Court Blocks Prison-Relief Plan & Orders Safeguards

CHICAGO (CN) - Cook County cannot move forward with a plan to release prisoners from its jail to ease overcrowding and civil rights violations, an Illinois federal court ruled, noting that the county's strategy inadequately addressed public safety concerns.

Since 1974, Cook County Jail has been the target of litigation claiming that the conditions violate the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishments clause for convicted criminals and the due process clause for pretrial detainees.

The present average occupancy rate is 91 percent, with male detainees at 95 percent and a medical division past full capacity.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart estimated that a safe margin would be 85 percent occupancy overall, and 1,000 pretrial detainees would have to be released to achieve that level, the ruling notes.

Releasing 1,000 pretrial detainees would only increase the county's population of persons charged with a crime, but not detained, by 2 percent, according to the court's unsigned opinion, released Tuesday.

In Cook County Jail, about 400 beds are vacant each night, but the prison is segmented and the segments are not interchangeable. A prisoner housed in the medical division, which is the most overcrowded area, for physical or mental ailments cannot be shifted to another division. In the same vein, men cannot be transferred into the undercapacity women's division.

Overcrowding has contributed to the incidence of violence among inmates, excessive-force measures taken by guards, inadequate medical care and poor sanitation.

The court noted that other options, such as hiring more guards and "loaning" inmates to other prisons, were inadequate because of financial or logistical realities.

"Because Cook County, like so much of Illinois local government and the state government as well, is operating deep in the red (its deficit is expected to be 400 million this year), considerations of cost loom large in any analysis of alternatives to a prisoner release order," the three-judge panel wrote (parentheses in original).

Dart's proposed release order had not been opposed, but the district court ordered revisions to answer public safety concerns.

The country said it planned to use electronic-monitoring systems to track detainees, many of whom will be bailed on affordable bonds, but the court's three-judge panel demanded more specifics.

At hearings leading up to submission of the prisoner release order, the sheriff's counsel promised that only pretrial detainees would be eligible for release, and only if they were not being charged with or have a history of violent crimes. But these provisions are not detailed in the county's "general," page-and-a-half-long proposal, the ruling states.

Other assurances, such as a provision to subject all released prisoners to electronic monitoring, fell by the order's wayside, the court noted.

"We are unhappy with the reference in the proposed order to releasing prisoners 'on their own recognizance and/or on electronic monitoring,'" the opinion states. "Left unspecified are which class or classes of prisoners is or are eligible and what grounds are to be used to decide whether electronic monitoring should be required, or the prisoner allowed to go free with no restrictions or surveillance of any kind."

The court directed the county to revise its order in compliance with the court's guidelines within 30 days.

Among other changes, the revised order must set a specific number of prisoners that will be released annually and make clear that only pretrial detainees without violent records are eligible for release. The county must also provide details on the electronic monitoring surveillance, submit regular updates on the overcrowding situation, and set a sunset clause, which would repeal the order after about four years.

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