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Illinois Federal Court Denies Prisoner Release Order at Cook County Jail

In a per curium decision, on January 11, 2011 a three-judge panel of federal judges of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied a request by the Sheriff of Cook County for entry of a prisoner release order pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3626. The Cook County jail, a 9,800-bed facility serving Chicago and the city’s suburbs, has been the subject of litigation since 1974 and the target of a Department of Justice lawsuit filed in 2008. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.26; Jan. 2009, p.16].

Cook County’s jail has been accused of conditions that violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, made applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although there are convicted prisoners at the jail, most are pretrial detainees. Citing Minix v. Canarecci, 597 F. 3d 824 (7th Cir. 2010), City of Revere v. Massachusetts General Hospital, 463 U.S. 239 (1983) and Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979), the court noted that previous consent decrees “have included prisoner release provisions premised on the belief that the jail’s chronic overcrowding was contributing to the constitutional violations.”

The Justice Department’s lawsuit charged inadequate protection of prisoners from violence by other prisoners, no recourse to excessive force by guards, inadequate medical care and unacceptable sanitation. On May 26, 2010, federal judge Virginia M. Kendall approved a consent decree, known as the Agreed Order, which displaced previous consent decrees. Among other things, the order banned triple bunking in tiny cells and “other methods by which the jail has sought to accommodate its excessive population without releasing prisoners.”

The three-judge panel made various findings and rejected the Sheriff’s request for a release order, citing § 3626, which states that no order will be granted unless “the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, [] is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.... [and the] court shall give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of a criminal justice system caused by the relief.” The court did find that “the criteria for the entry of a prisoner release order have been satisfied but that the order proposed by the Sheriff (and supported by the United States) requires revision in order to comply with the statute.”

The court determined that “overcrowding is a primary cause of unconstitutional conditions at the jail.” The judges noted that Cook County is $400 million in debt, and “considerations of cost loom large in any analysis of alternatives to a prisoner release order.” The court was critical of the portions of the order that did not specify: 1) where excess prisoners would be housed to make them readily accessible to court hearings and legal counsel, 2) whether other counties were able and willing to accept excess prisoners, 3) criteria to be used for releasing prisoners on their own recognizance and/or electronic monitoring, 4) how such monitoring would be funded, and 5) whether only pretrial detainees would be eligible for release.

The court also noted with disapproval “the unexplained reluctance of the state judges in Cook County to set affordable terms for bail...,” apparently leaving “the release of pretrial detainees to be the Sheriff’s responsibility,” but observed that that issue was not currently before the court.

The three-judge panel denied the Sheriff’s motion for a proposed release order, without prejudice to submit a revised proposed order in accordance with the court’s findings. This case remains pending. See: United States v. Cook County, 761 F.Supp.2d 794 (N.D. Ill. 2011).

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Related legal case

United States v. Cook County