A debate about a Cook County ordinance that frees some inmates wanted by immigration authorities could get hotter. At its meeting Wednesday, the County Board agreed to consider two proposed amendments that would scale back the ordinance. Commissioners with opposing views of the measure also vowed to press the county’s top law-enforcement officials to testify about it at an unscheduled hearing.
The ordinance effectively bars compliance with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers, which are requests that the county’s jail hold specified inmates up to two business days after they post bond or complete their criminal cases.
One of the proposed amendments, introduced Wednesday by Timothy Schneider (R-Bartlett), seems to require compliance with the detainers for inmates listed on the federal Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment and for inmates charged with — though not necessarily convicted of — various felonies. Those felonies include certain drug offenses, crimes resulting in great bodily harm, and “forcible felonies,” which Illinois defines as involving the use or threat of physical force or violence against an individual.
“I know that my amendment will not pass,” Schneider told commissioners during their meeting. “But maybe with some input from some of the stakeholders, something will come out of this and we will pass a common-sense measure that creates greater justice for victims of crimes and also to improve public safety for the residents of Cook County.”
The other proposed amendment, filed by Peter Silvestri (R-Elmwood Park) and John Daley (D-Chicago), would give the sheriff leeway to honor the detainers.
“The sheriff should have greater discretion on holding people that pose a threat to society,” Silvestri said before the meeting. “The sheriff, as the chief law enforcement officer of the county, should develop a procedure for determining which individuals to keep and which to release.”
That idea is not going over well with the ordinance’s author, Jesús García (D-Chicago). “It would bring back a flawed program that has not succeeded in apprehending dangerous criminals, and has instead resulted in the detention and sometimes deportation of people with minor infractions, victims of crime, and even U.S. citizens,” a statement from García’s office said. “It would give the sheriff unbridled discretion to comply with ICE detainers.”
Commissioners voted Wednesday afternoon to send both proposals to the board’s Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, chaired by Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), who supports the ordinance.
Sheriff Tom Dart’s office did not return a call about the proposals, but he has quietly urged commissioners to require compliance with ICE detainers for inmates who meet any of several criteria. Dart listed some of the criteria in a December letter to Silvestri: “[It] is my hope that you agree that those charged with a ‘forcible felony,’ those who have a history of convictions and those on a Homeland Security Terrorist Watch List should be held on an ICE detainer rather than released immediately.”
State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office did not return a call about the proposals.
The ordinance, approved in a 10-5 vote last September, has received increasing public attention in recent weeks as news outlets have focused on a convicted felon who was charged and jailed in a fatal Logan Square hit-and-run incident last year and named on an ICE detainer. After the ordinance passed, officials say, the inmate posted bond, walked free and went missing.
A letter this month from ICE Director John Morton to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle cites that case. “This ordinance undermines public safety in Cook County and hinders ICE’s ability to enforce the nation’s immigration laws,” the letter says.
Last week Preckwinkle said the hit-and-run suspect’s release “outraged” her, but she has stuck behind the ordinance. Instead of reconsidering it, she proposed a study of the county’s bail bond system for all criminal cases — no matter whether the inmate’s name appears on an ICE detainer. On Wednesday, the board approved the proposal, under which the county’s Judicial Advisory Council will undertake the study. That five-member panel, chaired by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, would recommend ways to improve pretrial services so judges can make better-informed decisions on bond amounts, according to the proposal.
ICE took custody of 1,665 Cook County inmates in 2010 and 721 in 2011, according to Dart’s office. Morton’s letter says ICE has lodged detainers against another 268 county inmates since the ordinance’s approval but the sheriff’s office has disregarded them.
The ordinance prohibits the jail from honoring the detainers unless the federal government agrees in advance to pay for the extended confinement — something ICE says it doesn’t do. García and others who back the ordinance say the detainers violated inmates’ due-process rights and eroded community trust in local police. A federal court ruling in Indiana last summer called compliance with the detainers “voluntary.”
The ordinance has reverberated beyond Cook County. In October, California’s Santa Clara County adopted a similar measure.