Childbirth behind bars: Legislation would free moms-to-be

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Nine months after the I-Team first reported on the case of a pregnant woman jailed in Cook County for a non-violent offense, legislation to limit such occurrences has passed the Illinois Senate and House.

The bill is now on Governor Bruce Rauner's desk and would reduce the number of children born in custody to pretrial detainees in Illinois.

Pregnant detainees found likely to give birth during pretrial detention would be given an alternative to incarceration, such as electronic monitoring, unless a special hearing were to deem her release a risk to public safety.

As the I-Team reported last summer, nearly 300 pregnant women were locked up in the Cook County jail on criminal charges during a year-long stretch, and 17 of them gave birth while in custody. Those astounding numbers prompted Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Thursday to unveil legislation aimed at reducing jailhouse deliveries.

Karen Padilla was the focus of our reporting. Padilla went into labor a month into her stay at the Cook County Jail, where she was sent for a non-violent probation violation. The Chicago woman was seven and a half months pregnant in June of 2017 when she was pulled over while driving with a broken headlight. At that time CPD arrested her on an outstanding warrant for violating probation a second time for a 2015 retail theft.

Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford ordered no bond for Padilla. Judge Ford set a court date for two months later, essentially handing the pregnant Padilla a 60-day sentence. During that time she delivered a baby girl.

Under the new legislation, if signed by Rauner, non-violent detainees such as Padilla would be released to have their babies outside of the jail system.

"This legislation will ensure a child is born in custody only when public safety is at risk," Sheriff Dart told the I-Team when the legislation was first introduced. "It makes no sense that the criminal justice system would require someone facing a non-violent, low-level charge to give birth while in custody."

Expectant prisoners have long presented challenges for jail officials. In 2012 a group of 80 female prisoners were awarded more than $4 million in a class action lawsuit against Cook County Jail. The women alleged they were shackled while they were giving birth and recovering from labor, despite a state law that forbids the practice.

The governor's office did not immediate reply to requests for information about whether, or when, the bill would be signed. It passed with bipartisan support in the House and unanimously in the Senate.
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