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Arrestees to get access to lawyers free of charge at Chicago police stations

People taken into custody by Chicago police will have access to an attorney at no charge under a potentially landmark order signed Tuesday by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

The aim of the change is to rectify a glaring constitutional issue – the vast majority of those arrested in Chicago don’t receive legal representation until their bail hearing in court, often after they’ve been questioned by detectives and made incriminating statements.

"I want to ensure that constitutional rights are protected from the earliest point of contact with the criminal justice system," Evans said in a statement. "The concept of ‘justice’ demands that we take this step to strengthen an individual’s rights and the public’s confidence in the system."

A spokeswoman for First Defense Legal Aid, which for years has provided legal counsel to some arrestees being held in police station lockups, said Chicago police have agreed to let those in custody call a lawyer after being brought to the station – and not have to wait until after they’ve been charged. Signs will be posted prominently at the department’s 22 district police stations with the number to call for help from an assistant public defender or volunteer lawyer, said the spokeswoman, Vickie Casanova Willis.

"This is an historic step that will improve the quality of justice in Cook County and that will help to ensure equal treatment of all members of our community and respect for our Constitution and for the rule of law," Thomas Geraghty, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, said in a statement.

Arrestees have long had a right to a lawyer under the Sixth Amendment, but it was impossible for most arrestees to speak with an attorney before they were charged and taken to bond court unless they had private counsel.

In fact, a public records request by the First Defense Legal Aid showed that only 838 of the nearly 86,700 people arrested last year by Chicago police – less than 1 percent — were able to consult with an attorney at the police station.

Twitter: @SteveSchmadeke