Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans on Wednesday announced that he plans to keep the county’s sprawling court system all-but closed until July due to COVID-19, although a spokesman left open the possibility of resuming operations sooner if they can put safety precautions in place.
The announcement renews concerns over an increasing jail population where the cases of incarcerated individuals are stalled while newly arrested people are added to the facility, which has seen hundreds of coronavirus cases.
“Evans considered entering an order to resume more court proceedings on June 15. But he decided to extend the date to July 6 to allow enough time for all justice system stakeholders to ensure that more proceedings will be conducted in a way that protects everybody,” Evans’ spokesman Pat Milhizer said in a statement. “These conditions have not been finalized, but they will be consistent with best practices involving face coverings, physical distancing, room capacity limits and flexibility for those who cannot attend court due to illness or exposure to illness.”
Evans is extending an order that he first entered in March, which limits court hearings to emergencies only and requires almost all court business be conducted via videoconferencing.
Attorneys and advocates, while acknowledging the need to protect people from COVID-19, have worried that the court shutdown severely limits access for criminal defendants and grinds the wheels of justice to a halt.
“Many folks are in limbo. … We know that there is a large segment of the population who have pending cases who are looking to resolve their cases,” said Sharone Mitchell, director of the Illinois Justice Project. “So for that large group of people, they have really just been kind of stuck waiting. Some are stuck waiting at home. Some are stuck waiting on electronic monitoring. And we know about 4,000 are stuck waiting in Cook County Jail.”
Mitchell said he “can’t describe how frustrating” it is for people with no day in court to even look forward to.
“There is this assumption that everybody in jail is just kind of on a slow boat to prison, and that’s what’s going to happen to everyone. That’s not true,” Mitchell said. “We know that many cases will plead for probation, which means that folks will eventually get out. … We know folks will be found not guilty by a jury of their peers or by the judge. We know that some cases will be dismissed. We know that some cases will be thrown out because there is a violation of somebody’s constitutional rights. There’s a whole variety of case outcomes. So that makes it even more frustrating.”
Still, Mitchell and other advocates acknowledged the tough position for Evans, who has to balance the rights of defendants with the realities of the county court system, where social distancing is practically impossible during normal operations. Added to that is the difficult task of assembling a jury during a time when many people are avoiding public gatherings altogether.
Those practical considerations could have the biggest impact on the Cook County jail, which has been beset with COVID-19 cases for months.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who is in charge of the jail, is currently involved in a lawsuit over the jail’s handling of COVID-19. Dart claims he has successfully contained the spread of the virus, and the detainees suing him claim otherwise.
In a May 1 filing in federal court, Dart mostly talked up his successes in the jail, but also warned that an expected increase in jail admissions could threaten that progress.
“Historically, the Jail experiences a sharp rise in the intake population as the weather grows warmer, and there is little reason to think that will be different this year … and the officers are bracing for a wave of new detainees,” the filing reads. “A sudden spike in the Jail population in the near term would upend the delicately balanced housing arrangements currently in place.”
Right now the jail population is 4,268 according to the sheriff, up about 200 from where it was at the start of the month.
Mitchell said the court shutdown makes the threat of a population increase even more real, because during a normal summer there are jail exits to offset some of the people entering the jail. But if cases aren’t being resolved — whether by people being let out or sent to other prisons — the population can only go up.
“There are on ramps into the jail. People are still … being arrested, but there aren’t really any off ramps,” Mitchell said.
Arrests by Chicago police are way down during the COVID-19 pandemic, but attorney Alexa Van Brunt said “that’s unlikely to persist.”
“We know that arrests spike in the summer, especially in specific neighborhoods that are over-policed generally. And so it is likely that admissions are going to go up and that more people are going to come in [to the jail],” Van Brunt said.
Van Brunt, who is the director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s Law School, is representing detainees suing the sheriff over his handling of COVID-19. She said despite the sheriff’s claims, the jail is still not actually set up for proper social distancing.
“We take the sheriff at his word that it’s not feasible for him to implement social distancing. He says he can’t do it now. So if numbers go up, it’s certainly going to become a ticking time bomb,” Van Brunt said.
In a statement, sheriff spokeswoman Kathleen Carmody said the lawsuit brought by Van Brunt and her clients had interfered with the work they were already doing “to contain the pandemic in the Cook County Jail,” by using up valuable time and resources responding to the lawsuit.
But Carmody said they are “mindful” of the likelihood of a population increase and what that would mean for the court-mandated, coronavirus precautions.
“It is extremely important that the [jail] population be as low as possible in order to effectuate social distancing,” Carmody said. “If the population increase is too great, we will eventually not have enough cells to only have a single person in each.”