Eisha Love's Dec. 18 release after spending three years and nine months in Cook County Jail's all-male Division IX without trial led to a number of unanswered questions regarding the attempted murder in the first degree charges that were initially leveled against her. Love is a transgender woman of color whose story was detailed in the Dec. 23 Windy City Times.
The charges were eventually downgraded to aggravated battery after medical records showed that the man she struck with her car on March 28, 2012, had his leg amputated by choice rather than as a result of the incident.
Cara Smith is the chief of policy and communications for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. She admitted that almost four years behind bars without a trial was "a disgrace." One area of concern for Smith was the amount of "dead time" Love spent.
"By law, anyone who is in jail pre-trial gets custody credit against any prison sentence they [receive]," she explained to Windy City Times. "In 2014, we began to track people who spent so much time in jail that, once they received a sentence, they were more immediately released. The more horrifying number that we track is the amount of extra time that people serve that does not get credited to any sentence. For example, if you spend a year in jail and are sentenced to a year, you have six months of what we call 'dead days'needed to satisfy a term. They don't do anything for you."
Smith said that, in 2015, the office projected 1,019 people serving an additional 218 years worth of days incarcerated that they didn't need to satisfy their prison sentence.
After a receiving a sentence of five years, Love had a total of 459 dead days. They are days that did not go toward her sentencedays she will never get back.
"One of the many terrible consequences of incarceration pre-trial is that people run the risk of getting new cases while in jail," Smith said.
She noted that the office is taking a number of steps to address these numbers.
"While the system is certainly making strides forward, we have an enormous amount of work on our hands," she said. "We've really begun to advocate for people in our custody over the past year. To be in jail because you are poor is just horrific, so last week we identified 232 people who needed $1,000 or less to bond out. We secured the release of these people before Christmas."
"The most important thing for people working in the system to do is to really care about the job and responsibility we have and to recognize that people are presumed innocent," she added. "It is an easier job to do if you don't assume everyone in jail is a bad person or is guilty of some crime."
As far as housing transgender individuals outside of their gender identity, in protective custody ( PC ) care or in administrative segregation for disciplinary reasons, Smith asserted that they are visited consistently by medical and mental health staff.
"We do play very close attention to people whose housing is restricted," she said. "We tried to responsive to [Love's] requests and needs during her time with us. We could not have placed her with a detainee if they were a risk. These are some of the most challenging matters that we have. So we try to put in place a whole system of professionals to be responsive to needs because we recognize that jail is an awful place for anyone to be much less someone who presents more unique challenges to the system. We recognize that there is no perfect answer to this, but we try to do the best job we can."
Smith termed the challenges of housing transgender detainees as an "emerging issue."
"I am sure that there are things that we could do better," she said. "When you are in a structured area, you are faced with a whole menu of things that you wish to be done differently to make the system more humane and responsive. It is just trying to be as progressive and out front on these issues as we can. We've come at this issue with open eyes."
Smith noted that the 2014 class-action complaint brought by the Northwestern University School of Law and Uptown People's Law Center alleging "a culture of brutality and lawlessness" in Divisions IX and X was eventually dismissed by the plaintiffs, who had to pay costs incurred to the tune of $50,000.
Windy City Times also reached out to the Cook County public defender's office. While declining to comment on the specifics of Love's case, first assistant Keith Ahmed wrote in a statement "the public defender has no control over the charging process. We have to defend against it, however, and as part of our legal representation for a client, we must take into consideration whether a judge or jury could find our client guilty of the most serious charge. That consideration takes into account the multiple ways a set of facts could be interpreted. Offers from the State sometimes get better over time."
"If a person fires a gun at another person and misses, no one is injured but the State will charge attempt murder," Ahmed continued. "The instrumentality used is considered by the State in its decision to charge."
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declined to comment on the case and calls and emails to Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office were not returned.
"When we talk about unjust incarceration, it is not just about numbers, it's about people's lives," Smith said. "We are unjustly incarcerating people at record levels. We must zealously advocate for a more just system. We've had our successes and I suspect that we will have more in the coming year. This problem didn't arrive overnight and we're not going to be able to fix it overnight. It's a work in progress and I have no illusions about how difficult it is."