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Federal judge declines to step in and order Illinois to release more inmates in the face of COVID-19 threat
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Federal judge declines to step in and order Illinois to release more inmates in the face of COVID-19 threat

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CHICAGO — A federal judge on Friday denied a request for the state to immediately release potentially thousands of at-risk detainees from Illinois prisons, saying that while the coronavirus pandemic is clearly a serious threat there was “no convincing reason for a federal court to intrude here and now."

U.S. District Judge Robert Dow issued the opinion a week after a pair of lawsuits were filed by a consortium of Chicago civil rights attorneys and community activists seeking the release of as many as 13,000 prisoners due to the COVID-19 crisis, including many who were convicted of non-violent offenses, are elderly, at elevated risk to get ill, or have already served most of their sentences.

The lawsuits alleged that Gov. J. B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Corrections have dragged their feet in the face of the pandemic, putting prisoners, prison staff and the general public at greater risk of severe illness and death.

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In his 48-page opinion, Dow acknowledged the serious of the situation, which as of Friday had seen 134 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among IDOC prisoners, including at least two deaths at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. But the judge said that Pritzker and other stake holders have taken steps to contain the spread of the virus that “plainly pass constitutional muster,” even if its not exactly what the plaintiffs were seeking.

“The release of inmates requires a process that gives close attention to detail, for the safety of each inmate, his or her family, and the community at large demands a sensible and individualized release plan--especially during a pandemic,” Dow wrote. “And the record here shows that the authorities in this state are doing just that, with constantly evolving procedures increasing the number of inmates released on a daily basis.”

Dow said the plaintiffs -- which include the Uptown Peoples Law Center and the MacArthur Justice Center with Northwestern University -- “provided no convincing reason for a federal court to intrude here and now --either to issue a blanket order for the release of thousands of inmates or to superimpose a court-mandated and court-superintended process on the mechanisms currently in place to determine which IDOC inmates can and should be safely removed from prison facilities at this time.”

After the suit was filed last week, Northwestern University professor of law Sheila Bedi told the Tribune that advocates and attorneys had waited several weeks for Pritzker to act before deciding the state’s response was too little, too late.

“Filing this lawsuit is absolutely a last resort,” said Bedi, who noted that other states have moved faster. “The progress here has been incredibly slow. There is no time to waste.”

Pritzker, meanwhile, has defended his reaction to the growing pandemic, saying in his daily press briefings that he’s made a concerted effort to release inmates early to blunt the spread of COVID-19. He said attorneys continue to review cases, particularly those involving non-toffenders such people convicted of retail theft or drug-related offenses.

The governor described a deliberate process in which inmates simply can’t walk out of prison at the snap of his fingers. There is paperwork and physicals to be completed, in addition to ensuring the prisoner will have somewhere to live upon release.

“When you let somebody out…they have to have a place to go,” the governor said. “You can’t place them on the street and have them homeless immediately.”

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