Cook County, home of Chicago, released hundreds of inmates from its jails during the coronavirus crisis. But good luck trying to find out who is back on the streets or what crimes they are accused of committing.
The prosecutors and public defenders, who handle the cases in special COVID-19 court hearings, keep a close hold on the information and refuse to share it with the public or other law enforcement agencies.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office that runs the jail says it doesn’t know who was released because of the coronavirus.
Even the Chicago Police Department says it’s in the dark about inmates who have been released.
“The greatest fear people have is the fear of the unknown,” Kevin Graham, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, told The Washington Times. “We don’t know what is occurring, we don’t know why people are being released, we don’t know their offenses, and we don’t know if these people pose a danger to society.”
Like Cook, cities and counties across the country are opening jailhouse gates to release inmates awaiting trial for crimes. The goal is to reduce the population behind bars because of fears that a coronavirus would spread quickly in the confined spaces of jail, endangering inmates and staff who have high risk factors that make COVID-19 a killer.
Prison reform advocates and some public health officials support the releases, but public safety advocates warn that authorities do not give enough scrutiny to those who are set free.
HIV-positive rapist released
In Cincinnati, Dexter Ford might seem like an obvious candidate for release.
At age 64 and HIV-positive, he checks some of the key boxes for high-risk factors. The homeless man was arrested last month on charges of trespassing after he washed himself in the bathroom of a grocery store.
But a closer look at his criminal history reveals something darker. In 2007, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping an epileptic University of Cincinnati student who was walking along a road.
Camille Cooper, vice president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which advocates for sexual assault victims, said Ford’s history makes his release deeply troubling.
“Being HIV-positive, homeless and having a record for a sexually violent offense makes this individual extremely high-risk in terms of the danger he poses to the public,” she said.
Ford was being held on a $1,000 bond for the trespassing charge. He could have made bail if he had put up $100 as collateral. He didn’t have the money, which was why he was sitting in jail while authorities worried about the coronavirus.
Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Janaya Trotter Bratton told The Washington Times that she released Ford because she didn’t think he should suffer for a lack of $100.
“I don’t think the purpose of bond is to punish people for being poor, and he was in jail and only in jail because he was poor. If there was an individual with the same fact pattern and means to pay $100, we wouldn’t be on this call,” she said.
Judge Bratton said she doesn’t view Ford as a danger to the community.
“He’s 64 and has not been in any trouble at all since he’s gotten out of prison,” she said. “He was picked up on the least charge you can be picked up on.”
Ms. Cooper, the victims’ advocate, said it didn’t make sense to release Ford on his own rather than sending him to a halfway house or other restrictive environment.
“Just releasing him and saying you can go be transient again is an additional risk to him,” she said. “If the judge wants to come at it from a compassionate standpoint, she could have provided social support to this individual who has multiple risk factors. It is kind of an irresponsible thing to do to a multiple offender.”
Other releases drawing scrutiny nationwide include eight registered sex offenders who were released in suburban Buffalo, New York, under a statewide order to thin the population of a local prison. Three of the releases are deemed most likely to re-offend.
The police chief in Greece, New York, about 70 miles east of Buffalo, said he found out from a TV news reporter that three convicted child rapists had been released and were staying at a Holiday Inn Express in his town.
During the first week of releases from the Jefferson County Jail in Denver, seven people with multiple charges of driving under the influence were released.
In Utah, a man released early because of COVID-19 concerns last month has already been rearrested. He is accused of breaking into a woman’s home, tying her up at knifepoint and threatening to kill her if she didn’t give him the PIN codes for her bank cards.
The Times’ investigation found another alarming incident in Cincinnati. Authorities there released ZahQuita Davis, who was arrested late last year on charges of stealing $370 worth of items from a Target store and trying to flee the scene by taking a car that had children in it. She told police she didn’t know children were in the car.
Jenna Moll, deputy director for the Justice Action Network, which advocates for sentencing reform, said even the best systems to evaluate releases are flawed.
“No process is ever going to be perfect, especially when you are talking about the government,” Ms. Moll said. “There is always going to be a chance for error, and even some of the best plans are going to be right 70 to 80% of the time.”
Ms. Moll said the key is for jurisdictions to be flexible enough to respond quickly when it does make mistakes. Holding detention reviews on a case-by-case basis and requiring offenders to check in with parole officers help mitigate errors, she added.
At the federal level, Attorney General William Barr expanded early release of inmates to try to cut prison populations. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees illegal immigrants being detained as they await deportation hearings or final ouster, said it is also considering who might be released.
Judges are stepping in, too, by ordering releases of criminal inmates and immigrant detainees in response to lawsuits from people arguing that they are in high-risk categories.
The Times sought lists of releases from several big cities.
Officials in Tampa, Florida, Denver and Cincinnati were among those that shared their lists.
Others were more opaque.
In Pittsburgh, a spokeswoman said Allegheny County had no list because officials were “focused on moving through this process, right now, not gathering stats.”
The sheriff’s office in Alameda County, California, referred all requests to the county court and public defender’s office, neither of which responded to repeated inquiries.
Beth Huebner, a recidivism researcher at the University of Missouri-St. Louis said privacy issues may be involved in revealing the releases of people who have not been convicted of the charges that got them detained.
“We need to make sure we protect the names of these individuals and their identities because they could be opened up to further stigma,” she said. “This information could be used in nefarious ways.”
But Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said the information should not be shielded from the public.
“It is really stunning, and I don’t use that word lightly,” he said. “For a public defender to say we don’t want to release information on who is coming into and out of the system is a betrayal of the legitimate need of the public’s right to know. I think it is very shortsighted and kind of ironic that an office titled public defender can be so antagonistic to the safeguards the public requires.”
In Cook County, the public defender’s office manages the release process in conjunction with State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Sheriff Tom Dart.
Defendants are released after hearings, but the hearings aren’t on the public docket and aren’t being held in the two courtrooms the county has kept open during the COVID-19 crisis.
‘A right to be concerned’
Roughly 1,000 detainees have been released from the Cook County Jail over the past month, although not only because of the coronavirus. During the first week of hearings, roughly 300 people exited the jail because of the pandemic.
A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said it was the responsibility of the state’s attorney and public defender to provide the names, but the state attorney’s office pointed the finger back at the sheriff.
“The sheriff handles the custody and release of detainees from the jail, so all inquiries for information regarding the inmates they have released from Cook County Jail should be directed to them,” the office said in a statement to The Times.
A spokeswoman for the public defender did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In public statements, officials involved say those released are nonviolent offenders, elderly or facing health issues that make them more vulnerable to complications if they become infected with the coronavirus.
Mr. Graham, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, was doubtful.
“Many of these are repeat offenders who are more than likely going to have contact with police in Chicago, Hinsdale [Illinois], Milwaukee or wherever they wind up,” he said.
He said shielding the information “smacks in the face of what is decent and right.”
“I think people have a right to be concerned, and I think the Chicago Police Department should be notified and they are not being notified,” he said.