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Editorial: County has right policy on detaining inmates

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart  |  Sun-Times file photo

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: May 24, 2013 6:15AM

Alawsuit filed Monday, backed by the group Judicial Watch, challenged Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s handling of “immigration detainers,” saying Dart has released as many as 1,000 criminal aliens sought by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the past 18 months.

That sounds bad. Actually, though, Dart is following the right policy, and we trust he will prevail in court.

ICE asks jails to hold some inmates for an extra 48 hours if they are suspected illegal immigrants. That gives ICE time to check the inmates’ immigration status and pick them up if necessary.

But here’s the constitutional catch. A federal court has ruled that immigration detainers have no legal standing and are simply requests. Under the Constitution, you can’t hold somebody in jail just because someone asks you to. ICE should obtain warrants for the people it really wants, and the county would hold them.

The immigration detainer issue became controversial in 2011 when Saul Chavez allegedly ran over pedestrian William “Denny” McCann and killed him. After five months in jail awaiting trial, Chavez paid $25,000 to make bail and fled.

In this case, the problem was a judge who set too low a bail for someone who was an obvious flight risk. And an immigration detainer might not have helped. ICE could have deported Chavez to Mexico, but that’s where many people think he is anyway.

A March 26 University of Washington study says Seattle area inmates subject to detainers remain in jail about a month longer on average, even though the requests are for only 48 hours, costing the county nearly $3 million in 2011. Most of the detainees are not serious criminals and one in eight are not charged with any crime at all, the study found.

Cook County already is struggling with a bulging jail population that threatens to overwhelm available space and squeeze out spending on other county priorities. Let’s not make that problem worse.

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