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Preckwinkle not backing down on illegal immigrant criminal cases

Thursday, January 12, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by 01/12/2012

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkleon Thursday refused to consider cooperating with federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants in county jail, calling instead for a task force to look at how to improve the way bail is set in all county criminal cases.

The announcement came days after a federal immigration official wrote her a letter warning that the county undermines public safety by not keeping suspected illegal immigrants in custody while agents decide whether to deport them.

But Preckwinkle said focusing on the relatively small number of illegal immigrants who commit crimes or fail to turn up in court after making bond in criminal cases is divisive. “This type of fear-mongering is distasteful, and has no place in the public policy arena,” said Preckwinkle, a Democrat with a liberal Hyde Park political pedigree.

“There are countless individuals — black, white, brown — who commit crimes and are brought before a judge in bond court,” Preckwinkle said at a downtown news conference. “Decisions about whether to detain or release them back into the community must be based on accurate and reliable information.”

The Cook County Judicial Advisory Council will conduct a six-month study on how bail is set in county courts, Preckwinkle said. The group will look in particular at ways to provide judges with better information before the often rapid-fire bond hearings where they have to make quick judgments about how likely defendants are to flee the area or commit more crimes if they get out.

Preckwinkle said she was “outraged” by the case of Saul Chavez, an illegal immigrant who made bail on charges he struck and killed pedestrian William McCann while allegedly driving drunk in the Logan Square neighborhood, then stopped showing up for court. Chavez, who had a prior felony conviction, was able to get out of jail by posting $25,000.

“It’s a tragedy because it could have been avoided,” Preckwinkle said. But she said the problem was that Chavez’s bond should have been set higher in light of his criminal background, not that he should have been treated differently due to his immigration status.

“There should be one set of laws for citizens, and one set of laws for people who are undocumented, who are not citizens. One set of laws, the same laws,” she said.

County commissioners voted in September to stop honoring requests from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to detain suspects who were in jail on other charges until the agency checked their immigration status. At the time, Preckwinkle said the move was made for financial reasons.

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