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Cook County State’s Attorney Halting Prosecution of Low-Level Drug Offenses, Invoking Other Measures in the Fight Against COVID-19
Incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx won the Democratic nomination against three challengers in March’s primary race and will face the winner of the Republican primary, Pat O’Brien, in November’s general election. Foxx has served as State’s Attorney since December 2016, during which time she has fought to improve public safety in Cook County and its communities.
Keeping residents of Cook County safe is of particular importance now, during the unprecedented coronavirus public health crisis, which has struck 43,715 people in Cook County and caused 3,443 deaths. In response to the lingering threat of COVID-19, Foxx’s office remains focused on protecting the health and safety of police officers, medical professionals, first responders, jail staff, detainees and the Cook County community at large. One way it plans to do that is by temporarily halting the prosecution of low-level drug offenses.
Table of Contents
- COVID-19 in Cook County
- Cook County Jail a “Petri Dish” for Coronavirus
- Cook County Halting Prosecution of Low-Level Drug Offenses
- Reducing the Spread of COVID-19 in Illinois Detention Facilities
- COVID-19 and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Response
- Increased Threat of Domestic Violence During COVID-19
- Impact of Public Health Crises on Domestic Violence Rates
COVID-19 in Cook County
Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States and around the world continue to rise, as does the death toll. To date, there have been more than one million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, resulting in nearly 70,000 deaths.
The state of Illinois alone has seen 63,840 cases and 2,662 deaths, the majority of those in Cook County, which is the largest county in Illinois and the second largest in the United States, behind Los Angeles County, California. In an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus and “flatten the curve,” Illinois governor JB Pritzker recently extended the stay-at-home order until the end of May and Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans also extended the postponement of many civil and criminal cases in the Circuit Court of Cook County through the end of May.
Cook County Jail a “Petri Dish” for Coronavirus
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has promised to take action to curb the spread of COVID-19 across Cook County, especially in detention facilities, which have been called “petri dishes” for coronavirus. Because social distancing is impossible in a jail housing more than 4,000 people in tight quarters, there has been a spike in coronavirus cases among prisoners, officers and staff members at the Cook County jail.
On May 3, Deputy Richard O’Brien, a 25-year veteran of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, died from complications of COVID-19. The Cook County Jail is one of the largest jails in the country and it has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of people have tested positive for coronavirus so far and the jail remains a hotspot for the virus.
The State’s Attorney’s Office plans to address the growing issue of COVID-19 at the Cook County jail using a multipronged approach. According to Foxx, more than 1,000 nonviolent prisoners have already been released from the jail due to coronavirus concerns, which has provided the rest of the detainees there with more space to comply with social distancing orders.
Additionally, the Office has temporarily halted the prosecution of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses in an effort to avoid adding to a population that is already struggling to control the COVID-19 crisis. By continuing to decrease the prison population, invoking more stringent safety measures, and making sure only those who pose a threat to public safety are referred to the Cook County jail, the State’s Attorney’s Office hopes to reduce the COVID-19 struggle while also continuing to protect public safety.
Cook County Halting Prosecution of Low-Level Drug Offenses
In March, Foxx announced that Cook County would not be prosecuting low-level, nonviolent drug offenses during the COVID-19 outbreak. The temporary policy was enacted mainly as a public health measure, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in police and jail facilities and to safeguard the health of police officers, sheriff’s personnel, detainees and the public. “Out of an abundance of caution for the health of law enforcement and the community at large, the State’s Attorney’s Office will not be pursuing cases which pose little to no risk to public safety at this time,” Foxx said in a statement. “Everyone deserves to be protected, especially during these uncertain times, and we are obligated to ensure all members of our community feel safe, including those behind bars.”
The State’s Attorney’s Office also noted that it is working alongside the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Public Defender to facilitate the release of any individuals detained at the Cook County Jail who are not a threat to public safety. “An outbreak of coronavirus in our police stations or the Cook County Jail would be devastating, not just for those who are arrested or in custody during this time, but for the officers, staff, and all of Cook County,” Foxx said.
First Assistant State’s Attorney Joe Magats explained in a letter that another factor came into play in the decision to not pursue prosecution for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses – a reduction in evidence testing at the Illinois State Police crime lab. “ISP’s directive that no narcotics will be tested has left us with no good-faith basis to proceed with these cases,” Magats wrote to First Deputy Superintendent Anthony Riccio of the Chicago Police Department.
The ISP issued a statement indicating that its forensic science labs stopped testing “routine submissions,” including suspected narcotics, in order to “facilitate social distancing” by the lab’s employees. The lab will reportedly continue to test evidence in violent crimes during the COVID-19 public health crisis.
Reducing the Spread of COVID-19 in Illinois Detention Facilities
In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Illinois officials have stopped new admissions to the state’s prisons and have implemented measures to grant early release or medical furloughs to hundreds of inmates. As a result, the total prison population in the state was reduced by about 1,100 people from mid-March to mid-April.
The state noted these efforts in a court filing arguing against a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups seeking to force the state to release more than 10,000 prisoners to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “The Court and the public need only watch Governor Pritzker’s daily press briefing […] to see that the Governor, the Department, and the State have implemented immediate and drastic steps to address the COVID-19 public health emergency to protect all Illinois citizens, including those incarcerated in state prisons,” the filing states.
In April, a federal judge denied the petition requesting the mass release of detainees from the Cook County jail. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ruled that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart did not have to grant the immediate mass release of inmates from the county jail, but did have to improve the conditions there. As of May 4, the Cook County jail reported having more than 400 cases of coronavirus among detainees, correctional officers and Sheriff’s employees.
Kennelly ordered the county to take action to keep the jail safe and sanitary, which includes testing detainees who have been exposed to COVID-19 or exhibit symptoms of the virus. Kennelly also ordered Dart to enforce social distancing measures at the jail, including no longer using crowded cells to hold groups of new detainees during the intake process.
COVID-19 and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Response
In an interview with Reset in April, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx discussed her office’s recent efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Cook County jail and her decision to temporarily pause the prosecution of low-level drug offenses during the COVID-19 crisis.
Said Foxx in the interview, “What we have seen is that an overwhelming majority of cases that have come before the State’s Attorney’s Office have been low-level, nonviolent drug offenses [involving] people who are dealing with addiction issues that should not be criminalized.”
In response to questions about the plausibility of issuing a mass release of detainees due to coronavirus concerns, Foxx stated, “We have to, in all of this, make sure that we are maintaining the balance between public health and public safety. We believe it’s important to review these cases individually. There are people who are there accused of crimes of violence.
There are victims and survivors who are impacted by these decisions. There are some people who are charged with offenses where we believe that they are, in fact, a danger to the public.” Foxx added, “That being said, just because they are charged with those offenses, they are presumed innocent until found guilty. And they are afforded a right to be in conditions that are safe and healthy.”
Increased Threat of Domestic Violence During COVID-19
In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, another major, escalating health concern is the heightened risk of domestic violence in homes where abuse is perpetrated against intimate partners. During the coronavirus quarantine, when people in Illinois and nationwide are urged to “stay safe at home,” victims of domestic abuse may be even more vulnerable to physical violence and other types of violence or threats by abusive intimate partners.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women around the world experience domestic violence at some point in their lives and experts are finding that the risk of abuse has increased in areas across the country as a result of social distancing and self-isolation measures put into place to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Because of social distancing and because people are being told to really isolate in their homes as much as possible, we are seeing that abusers are preventing their partners from seeking medical attention, potentially prohibiting them from leaving the home […],” says Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence agency serving Chicago and 22 surrounding suburban communities. Stephanie Love-Patterson, executive director of Connections for Abused Women and Their Children, echoes that concern.
“Many victims of domestic violence have to very carefully, methodically plan on when they are going to reach out for help,” she says. “And with the perpetrators being on-site all the time [during the coronavirus quarantine], that increases the power and control and so there is probably even more monitoring over their use of their cell phone and more monitoring over the use of their computer.” As a result, domestic violence victims may find themselves unable to call for help.
Impact of Public Health Crises on Domestic Violence Rates
Domestic violence tends to increase during times of crisis, when abusers feel a lack of power or control in their lives. Unfortunately, the conditions created by the coronavirus lockdown have created a “perfect storm” for domestic violence, causing added tension in households where abuse already exists and isolating victims from the people and resources that can help them.
Says Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, “We have a situation right now where domestic violence survivors are locked in place with their abusers,” with fewer opportunities to call for help. “The sad reality is we know that there are likely more incidents of domestic violence happening but the calls aren’t reflective of that because of the power and control that is being exercised in the home,” which prevents many survivors from reaching out for help.
During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and its lead prosecutor, Kimberly Foxx, want domestic violence victims to be aware of the following:
- While most of the criminal courts have been closed as a result of COVID-19, domestic violence courts are still open and hearing cases.
- Victims of domestic violence who need an emergency order of protection can still visit the courthouse in their district to petition for a restraining order. Says Foxx, “Emergency orders of protection are still being heard on a daily basis.”
- The State’s Attorney’s Office is working with law enforcement to ensure that in cases where police respond to a domestic violence call and the abuser has left, an arrest warrant can be obtained.
- The Office’s Victim Witness Assistance line is open and accepting calls at 773-674-7200, in order to refer victims to vital domestic violence resources.
- The Office is working with the advocacy community to ensure that victims of domestic violence know what resources are available to them during COVID-19.