Lawsuit Alleges Cook County Judges Routinely Set Cash Bail at Unaffordable Levels, Depriving Arrestees of Constitutional Right to Pretrial Liberty
Thousands of arrestees presumed innocent and eligible for pretrial release are being kept in Cook County Jail solely because they cannot afford to pay the amount of bail set by circuit court judges — a clear violation of their right to pretrial liberty and other constitutional rights, according to a class action lawsuit filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County.
A disproportionate share of these persons are African Americans, who are being discriminated against because of their race, which is a violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, the complaint states.
Defendants include Cook County Circuit Court Judge Leroy Martin, Jr., presiding judge of the Criminal Division; Cook County Circuit Court Judge E. Kenneth Wright, Jr., presiding judge of the Municipal Division; and three other judges who make release determinations in criminal cases. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who administers the Cook County Jail, is also named as the custodian of the wrongfully detained plaintiffs.
“As a matter of practice, the Judicial Defendants impose financial conditions of release without making an inquiry into and findings concerning an arrestee’s ability to pay,” according to the complaint. “No alternative is provided for those arrestees who are unable to pay the amount ordered for their release from custody even though they are eligible for pretrial release.”
Illinois statutes mandate pre-trial release of all defendants, except for those charged with the most serious cases and in those cases where a judge determines a defendant’s release would “pose a real and present threat” to anyone’s safety. Although statutes also instruct judges to set bail in an amount “considerate of the financial ability of the accused,” Cook County judges routinely do not conduct any form of inquiry into ability to pay. In the vast majority of cases in Cook County, judges require cash bail for release rather than releasing a defendant on their own recognizance or a less expensive and less restrictive option like electronic monitoring, according to the complaint.
“In addition to being unjustly deprived of their fundamental liberty interest, arrestees who are unable to secure a pretrial release from jail are also far more likely to be both convicted and sentenced more harshly in comparison to arrestees who obtained pretrial release,” the complaint states. “Those detained prior to trial are also more likely to lose their employment, housing and child custody, and they are also more likely to commit crimes in the future because of the documented criminogenic effects of even a few days in a jail cell after arrest. The results are devastating for the individuals, their families and communities — and for taxpayers of Cook County who are forced to pay for these unconstitutional, illegal, and completely unnecessary incarcerations.”
The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center; the Chicago law firm of Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd.; and the Civil Rights Corps, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC.
Settlement Reached in Lawsuit Alleging Illinois Prison Officials Retaliated Against Victim of Prison Rape
The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) has agreed to pay $450,000 to a man punished and humiliated by prison officials after he reported his Logan Correctional Center cellmate had sexually and physically assaulted him. The James Fontano v. Godinez settlement is believed to be among the largest payments made for a prison retaliation case. Fontano was represented by attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the Uptown People’s Law Center.
"Whether in prison, in the Catholic church, in a school or anywhere else, any person who reports a sexual assault deserves to be treated with concern and respect,” said Locke E. Bowman, Executive Director of the MacArthur Justice Center. “Those in charge must investigate the allegations fairly and aggressively. Sexual predators must be brought to justice.
"The response of prison officials to James Fontano in this case is a model of what not to do,” Bowman said. “Instead of concern, James was met with derision and disbelief. The investigation was designed to cover up the rape, not to hold the perpetrator accountable. We need to ask: Just how prevalent is rape within Illinois' prisons?"
St. Clair County Sued Again Over Another Jail Suicide
Approximately five hours after telling his jailers that he intended to kill himself and being told “whatever, do what you want to do,” Bradley C. Scarpi was found hanging by a bedsheet in the St. Clair County Jail, according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.
Scarpi, 33, of Belleville, died at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville on May 23, 2014, less than hour after he was discovered hanging from his cell bars in a jail that - despite several recent suicide attempts and studies showing suicide as the leading cause of deaths in jail – does not have formal policies regarding suicide prevention and does not adequately train its staff in suicide prevention, according to the lawsuit.
This is the second recent federal lawsuit brought against the St. Clair County in relation to a jail suicide. The MacArthur Justice Center also represents the estate of Joshua Jurcich, who hung himself in a jail cell two months before Scarpi committed suicide.
PDF of news release HERE.
PDF of lawsuit HERE.
Lawsuit Alleges St. Clair County Sheriff’s Officers Refused to Care for Suicidal Man Causing his Death
St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department officers exposed a man living with mental illness to filthy, overcrowded living conditions; held him in isolation; beat him; and ignored and laughed at his suicide threats – practices that led to the 2014 death of Joshua Jurcich by suicide, according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.
Naming St. Clair County Sheriff Richard Watson; Major Phillip McLaurin; 20 St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department officials; Wexford Health Sources, the county’s jail mental health provider; and various medical and mental health professionals as defendants, the complaint alleges that the officials violated Jurcich’s rights under the constitution by using excessive force against him and refusing to protect him from the risk of suicide. The complaint also includes claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and alleges that the county officials and contractors are liable for Jurcich’s wrongful death.
PDF of news release is HERE.
PDF of lawsuit is HERE.
Exercise of Religious Freedom Results in Solitary Confinement
NEW DEVELOPMENT: After the MacArthur Justice Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of Rayshawn Vonperbandt, the Illinois Department of Corrections expunged the discipline imposed when Vonperbandt refused to stand during a prayer, which was part of a substance abuse treatment program. He has been allowed to receive the needed treatment again.
PDF of stipulation regarding withdrawal of motions for temporary retraining order and preliminary injunction is HERE.
An atheistic state prisoner has been expelled from a substance abuse treatment program at Sheridan Correctional Center and punished for refusing to stand during a prayer to God, according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Diagnosed while in high school with a brain malformation, Rayshawn Vonperbandt underwent brain surgery and was prescribed addictive drugs for pain. Substance abuse treatment is critical to his recovery, but there is no secular substance abuse program available at Sheridan, according to the lawsuit.
Defendants in the suit are John R. Baldwin, Acting Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections; several IDOC staff; and Westcare Foundation, Inc., which is the IDOC contractor providing the substance abuse program at Sheridan.
PDF of news release is HERE.
PDF of lawsuit is HERE.
Federal Prisoner’s Constitutional Right to Religious Liberty at Stake in West Virginia Case
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has been asked to overturn a lower court’s dismissal of a case filed by a federal prisoner, who seeks damages for violations of his constitutional right to free exercise of his religion.
Marvin X. Damon’s lawsuit alleges he was served a ceremonial meal that violated his religion’s dietary laws. While a prisoner at the Federal Correctional Institution at McDowell near Welch, West Virginia, Damon, a member of the Nation of Islam, was served a meal that substituted kidney beans for the navy beans called for by his religion.
“Some would dismiss this case as nothing more than a hill of beans,” said an amicus brief in support of Damon’s appeal, “but it in fact presents an important question that strikes at heart of religious liberty and has divided the Circuits: Does the Prison Litigation Reform Act prevent an incarcerated plaintiff from recovering compensatory damages for violations of Free Exercise Rights that do not result in physical injury?”
The amicus brief was filed by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, the ACLU and the ACLU of West Virginia.
PDF of news release is HERE.
PDF of Amicus Brief is HERE.
PDF of Motion for Leave to File is HERE.
Federal Court Asked to Block Enforcement of Pennsylvania Law to Silence Anyone Convicted of a Personal Injury Crime
A motion for a preliminary injunction has been filed in federal court in Pennsylvania seeking to stop enforcement of a state law intended to silence Mumia Abu-Jamal and others convicted of personal injury crimes.
The motion was filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU) filed a similar lawsuit and preliminary injunction.
The Silencing Act allows the Pennsylvania Attorney General, county prosecutors, and victims of personal injury crimes to bring a lawsuit in civil court against the person convicted of the personal injury crime to enjoin conduct that “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” The actions that could prompt a lawsuit include “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”
“This law is unconstitutional,” said David Shapiro of MacArthur Justice Center. “The facts are on our side and the law is on our side. The Silencing Act targets a huge amount of constitutionally protected speech based on who is speaking.”
PDF of news release is HERE.
PDF of the motion for preliminary injunction is HERE.
PDF of brief in support of motion for preliminary injunction is HERE.
Lawsuit Challenges Constitutionality of Pennsylvania Law Muzzling Anyone Convicted of a Personal Injury Crime
The new law allows injunctive relief to silence and fine an offender “for conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” A victim of a personal injury crime, a district attorney or the Pennsylvania attorney general could seek the injunction.
The speech restriction was passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in response to a college commencement address recorded from prison by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. A death sentence against Abu-Jamal was vacated in 2001 due to irregularities in the sentencing process, and the Philadelphia district attorney ended efforts to reimpose the death penalty 10 years later.
During his decades in prison, Abu-Jamal has maintained his innocence. Prior to his arrest, he was president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists and was a staff reporter for WHYY, the NPR affiliate in Philadelphia. He has written extensively books and essays about prison and the justice system and delivered commentaries on Prison Radio.
“Although politicians in Pennsylvania may not like what Abu-Jamal has to say, the Constitution gives him the right to say it,” said David M. Shapiro, clinical assistant professor of law and attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center. “If convicted of a crime, a state can take away anyone’s freedom of movement during their sentence, but a state cannot take away our freedom of speech.”
“This law would prevent anyone convicted of a personal injury crime from saying or writing anything that might upset a crime victim, and that includes any proclamation of innocence or public appearance reminding the victim of the crime,” Shapiro said. “This challenge to an unwise and unconstitutional Pennsylvania law is not aimed at crime victims but is necessary to preserve constitutional rights, which are guaranteed to all of us and are the foundation of our legal system.”
Jamal v. Kane was filed Nov. 10 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. In addition to Jamal, plaintiffs include two other writers in state prisons, Prison Radio, the Human Rights Coalition and Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Defendants are Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia County District Attorney R. Seth Williams.
The plaintiffs are represented by the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, the Amistad Law Project in Philadelphia and the MacArthur Justice Center.
PDF of the lawsuit is HERE.
RMJC Attorney Seeks Justice in Poland for Victim of American Torture
Roderick MacArthur Justice Center attorney Joseph Margulies, in concert with other lawyers, has asked the Polish government to investigate charges that Americans tortured Abu Zubaydah while he was detained in a secret prison in Poland.
The suit contends that the Polish government illegally colluded in the torture by hosting the prison.
Margulies said Zubaydah "has been described as the guinea pig for the enhanced interrogation program" that led to widespread condemnation of American anti-terrorism methods.
U.S. officials arrested Zubaydah in March 2002. At the time, they described him as the third-ranking member of Al Qaeda. They subjected him to all the "enhanced" techniques devised by the Bush Administration, including waterboarding. According to a 2005 Central Intelligence Agency memo, Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002 alone. Eventually, the United States acknowledged they had significantly misjudged Zubaydah. The United States Government no longer alleges Zubaydah was a member of al Qaeda, an associate of Usama bin Laden, a supporter of his radical ideology, or that he had anything to do with the attacks of September 11.
Zubaydah has not been charged with a crime. He remains in United States custody at Guantanamo. His ordeal was recounted in a 2009 commentary Margulies published in the Los Angeles Times.
Updated - 01/07/2011