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Bill to keep pregnant women out of jail while they await trial reaches governor's desk

Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Elyssa Cherney

What started as a shouting match in a Cook County courtroom last year is now on the verge of shaping state policy for pregnant women in jail waiting for trial. 

The contentious case heard in August before a longtime judge inspired a bill — passed last week by the Illinois House and Senate — that seeks to reduce the likelihood that expectant mothers charged with nonviolent offenses will be held in jail as they wait for their cases to be tried. 

The measure, which requires judges to hold additional hearings before ordering a pregnant woman be held in jail, has reached Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk and needs his signature to become law. “This is commonsense and compassionate public policy, and I hope that (Rauner) signs it quickly,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who sponsored the bill. “I go back to contemplating the birth stories for these children and that we have the opportunity to impact those kids’ lives. ... It’s worth it.” 

Cassidy, a Democrat from Rogers Park, filed the bill after learning about a Chicago woman who gave birth in June while in jail. The woman, Karen Padilla, was seven months pregnant when Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford revoked her bond on a theft case after she was pulled over for a traffic violation and police noticed a warrant for her arrest. 

She was ultimately released after the jail and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office got involved. Eric Sussman, then second in command of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, helped get Padilla released — and got into a shouting match with Ford over the case. Padilla could not be reached for comment Tuesday. “Having three kids myself, I know it is a critical, critical period for a child to be with his or her mom,” Sussman said Tuesday. “I was shocked that this was going on, particularly for a nonviolent, low-level offender who was essentially pulled over for having a nonfunctioning headlight.”

The bill requires judges to find an alternative — such as electronic monitoring, placement in a drug-treatment facility or personal-recognizance release — for women likely to give birth while in custody. Judges can order pretrial detention only after holding a hearing to determine if a woman poses a threat to others. The provisions apply only to women awaiting trials in county jails, not those sentenced to prison. It’s difficult to assess how widespread jailhouse pregnancies are because Illinois does not keep centralized data about them, according to Cassidy and Alexis Mansfield, lead attorney at Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. National data on the issue are scant too. 

In Cook County, the jail housed more than 300 pregnant detainees between April 2016 and May 2017, according to the sheriff’s office. Seventeen of those women gave birth in custody. As of Tuesday, the jail had 16 pregnant detainees awaiting trial, two of whom were out of jail on electric monitoring, said Hanke Gratteau, director of the Sheriff's Justice Institute. Over the last several years, the number of pregnant women in jail and the overall female population have fallen dramatically with countywide efforts to decrease the incarceration of poor and nonviolent people, Mansfield said. Pregnant women in Cook County Jail are rushed to a hospital to give birth, Sussman said. 

The baby is sent to relatives or referred to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Sussman said. Gratteau said the jail tries to give mothers several days in the hospital with newborns. Mansfield said the legislation could have a huge impact, allowing mothers to breastfeed and bond with their children and to better fight charges from outside of jail. “This is a great start, and I’d like to see it expanded to include caregivers of children in general.”

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