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Cook County Justice System Responds To Coronavirus Outbreak

Cook County is making changes at courthouses and more to address the coronavirus pandemic.

A sign for Cook County Court House on Wednesday, February 19, 2020 in Chicago.
Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
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The story was written and first published by Injustice Watch, a non-partisan, not-for-profit, multimedia journalism organization based in Chicago.

CHICAGO — As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Illinois hit 25 on Wednesday, officials throughout the state’s justice system are moving to respond to the new threat.

Judges in the Circuit Court are considering procedural changes to help slow the disease. On Wednesday, the Domestic Relations Division of the Circuit Court became the first division to make changes to fight the spread of the disease.

Parents ordered to take parenting classes are now able to complete them online, and Family Mediation Services can now do mediations by phone, according to a court order from Presiding Judge Grace G. Dickler. The order also temporarily suspended “Children and Teens Speak,” an educational program aimed at helping children deal with family transitions.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans has not made widespread changes to the Circuit Court’s other divisions. People called for jury duty who have flu-like symptoms can call the jury office to postpone their jury service, according to Pat Milhizer, a spokesman for Evans. “These are standard procedures but especially important at this time,” Milhizer wrote in an email to Injustice Watch.

The court has installed hand sanitizers in courthouses and instructed cleaning crews to do regular passes through the buildings “with an emphasis on first-touch areas such as doors knobs,” Milhizer wrote. Officials have also postponed courthouse tours.

Concerns about COVID-19 have led some courts in other states to close their doors or begin conducting phone hearings. In DuPage County, Chief Judge Daniel P. Guerin announced several changes Tuesday, including suspending ceremonies for marriage and civil unions until the end of the month.

A spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, which administers the state’s appellate and supreme courts, told Injustice Watch the “courts are actively monitoring and responding to the Coronavirus public health emergency as we speak,” adding that updates will be posted to the courts’ website as they come out. The court’s judicial education conference, originally scheduled to start March 30, has been canceled.

The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which regulates lawyers on behalf of the Illinois Supreme Court, closed its Chicago office Wednesday, after a person who works in the same building tested positive for the virus.

Activists and former health officials have warned that prisons and jails are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks, and the recent prison riots in Italy highlight the potential dangers of an ineffective response.

A coronavirus outbreak in state prisons could have serious consequences. The Illinois Department of Corrections has been under court supervision since late 2018 after two separate reports from medical experts showed shortcomings in the prisons’ healthcare system.

IDOC also has a large number of older prisoners. Over 7,000 IDOC prisoners are over 50, of which nearly 2,400 are over 60, according to a fact sheet from December. These inmates would be at high risk if the disease got into prisons.

A spokesperson for IDOC said that the agency is adjusting its influenza response plans in case of a COVID-19 outbreak but did not explain what specific changes would be made. The agency has started asking visitors to consult a questionnaire before entering an IDOC facility. The sheet asks any visitors that have flu or cold symptoms or who have been in contact with sick people to postpone their visit.

IDOC has not indicated other changes to visitation policies, but a spokesperson told Injustice Watch that people with symptoms or who may have been exposed to the disease “may not be permitted to visit an IDOC correctional facility.”

The Cook County Jail has screened all incoming detainees since late January for flu-like symptoms, according to Sophia Ansari, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

Ansari also noted that staff have “enhanced cleaning and disinfecting efforts at the jail, including disinfecting transport vehicles and holding areas after each use.”

“Currently, the jail’s daily operations have not been impacted,” Ansari wrote in an email to Injustice Watch, adding that “Visitation, detainee movement and detainee programming are continuing as normal.”