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The Council and Chicago Appleseed Get Results: Reform in Bond Court

Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Chicago Appleseed Fund

The video camera at the 26th Street Central Bond Court was turned off on Monday, December 15. A new pre-trial services program began work at 7am that day. The Chicago Council of Lawyers and Chicago Appleseed are working with the court to promote a program through which 17-19 year old nonviolent offenders will be identified through the new pretrial services program for a special diversion program involving both treatment and education opportunities. This is a victory for the people of Cook County.

A court's determination of whether to conditionally release or incarcerate a criminal defendant until trial or other disposition of the case is an immensely important part of the criminal justice process. Incarcerated defendants have limited opportunity to work and communicate with attorneys, investigators, and witnesses, thereby impairing their ability to prepare a defense. Numerous studies have shown that defendants who remain in secure detention are at a significant disadvantage relative to those who are released pending trial.

All of this comes at a staggering cost to the taxpayer - the defendants and their employers lose earnings, families lose support, and the more direct costs of the incarceration itself are reported by the Cook County Sheriff's Department to be more than $100 per day per inmate.

In February 2007, the Council and Chicago Appleseed Justice called for an immediate end of video bond hearings. We believed that comprehensive, in-person hearings are necessary, with information presented so the judge can make an informed decision.

In December 2007, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, working with the Chicago Council of Lawyers, published A Report on Chicago's Felony Courts. This comprehensive report shed light on a criminal justice system which has become our defacto mental health and drug treatment system. The report included 50 specific recommendations for change, with suggestions for reallocation of resources, caseload and workload restructuring, facility improvements, and better use of diversion programs.

Among the most important of these recommendations are three that have a direct bearing on Bond Court:

· Cook County needs in-person bond hearings with the capability of identifying non-violent offenders for special diversion programs.

· Cook County needs a pre-trial services program to give the judges reliable information before bond is set. Recognizing the paucity of government funding, we suggest utilizing volunteer law students, lawyers, and social work students to gather information and prepare reports.

· Judges, defense counsel, prosecutors, and probation officers need additional training.

Since the release of the report on the felony courts, Chicago Appleseed and the Council have been in discussi ons with Chief Judge Tim Evans, calling for the use of a courtroom on the first floor of 26th Street for bond hearings, eliminating the need for videoconferencing. We recommended reinstatement of a fully functional pre-trial services department to inform the court of relevant facts. We have recommended during these discussions that, if necessary, the Cook County Probation Department work with trained and supervised volunteer students and lawyers to gather the necessary background information in time for bond hearings.

We also began discussions with the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court in determining whether an in- person Central Bond Court coupled with an effective pre-trial services program can be used to help bring together non-violent drug offenders under the age of 22 for special diversion programs, including the vocational and educational opportunities they need to survive.

We applaud the efforts of the Circuit Court of Cook County in bringing about these needed reforms. We also support the efforts of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to improve Central Bond Court even further. We will be working to monitor the results of these reforms, to suggest and help make necessary adjustments, and to seek the20implementation of even more of the recommendations found in our 2007 Report. The major stakeholders in the criminal justice system have begun to cooperate in bringing about needed reforms. Chicago Appleseed and the Chicago Council of Lawyers will continue to promote these coordinated reform efforts.

Malcolm C. Rich
Executive Director
Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice
Chicago Council of Lawyers

Daniel T. Coyne
President, Chicago Council of Lawyers
Associate Professor of Clinical Practice
Chicago-Kent College of Law

Mary E. Anderson
President, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice

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