As jailhouse births climb, a plan to deal with pregnant prisoners

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Nearly 300 pregnant women were locked up in the Cook County jail on criminal charges during a year-long stretch, according to sheriff's department records, 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.

Dart's plan comes one month after the ABC7 I-Team reported on a pregnant Cook County prisoner jailed in a non-violent case. Karen Padilla, 25, of Chicago went into labor a month into her stay at the Cook County jail where she was sent for a non-violent probation violation. Padilla was 7 1/2 months pregnant in June when she was pulled over while driving with a broken headlight. At that time Chicago police arrested her on an outstanding warrant for violating probation a second time for a 2015 retail theft.

Under Sheriff Dart's proposal, pregnant detainees who are likely to give birth during pre-trial detention will be put on electronic monitoring or some given some other alternative to jailing. Exceptions to the pregnancy-release would be made for public safety concerns. If a pregnant prisoner was a possible danger to the community, a court hearing would determine detention.

"This legislation will ensure a child is born in custody only when public safety is at risk" said Sheriff Dart. "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."

Dart said Thursday that babies born while the mother is in custody are costly to taxpayers and in many of those situations are avoidable.

Sheriff's officials said that was the case in June when Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford ordered no bond for Karen Padilla. Judge Ford set a court date for two months later, essentially handing the pregnant Padilla a 60-day sentence.

Last month legal experts told the I-Team that Judge Ford violated a law requiring bond hearings to be held within 14 days. Ford declined comment for the I-Team report, but later in court defended his action and was sharply critical of those who questioned his jailing of the pregnant Padilla. After the baby was born, sheriff's officials worked with prosecutors to get Padilla released on an I-bond.

"I think we can never forget that real people's lives are impacted by the decisions that the system makes" sheriff's dept. policy officer Cara Smith told the I-Team in August. "It should be about justice and doing what's right for someone based on the facts and circumstances of their case."

Expectant prisoners have long presented challenges for jail officials. In 2012 a group of 80 female prisoners were awarded more the $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.

Under the sheriff's latest legislative proposal, non-dangerous pregnant prisoners wouldn't even be in jail. That legislation is to be sponsored by Illinois Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago, South Suburbs) and State Rep. Kelly M. Cassidy (D-Chicago.)
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