Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called Wednesday to say she is not backing down from a new county ordinance that some are blaming for allowing an illegal immigrant accused in a fatal drunk driving accident to skip the country.
Instead, Preckwinkle said she’ll ask county commissioners to instruct her Judicial Advisory Council to conduct a comprehensive study of our bail bond system as it operates in Cook County’s criminal courts — a system that she believes too often fails to differentiate between who is a danger to the public and who isn’t.
Preckwinkle thinks that’s the real issue exposed in the sad hit-and-run death of William “Denny” McCann, who was walking in his Logan Square neighborhood last year when he was struck by a car allegedly driven by a drunk Saul Chavez, a Mexican immigrant who authorities say was living here illegally. I think she’s on the right track.
McCann’s family is understandably angry because Chavez, who had been held in Cook County Jail on $250,000 bond, bonded out in November and has since failed to show up for court appearances. On Monday, a federal magistrate issued an arrest warrant for Chavez at the request of the FBI.
McCann’s family — and others who have taken up the cause — blame his fugitive status on the fact county commissioners months earlier had approved an ordinance taking the county out of the immigration enforcement business.
No longer does the jail honor requests by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to continue holding suspected illegal immigrants once they’ve posted bond or completed their court cases.
Preckwinkle said she is sympathetic to the McCann family.
“I can understand their pain and their anger,” she told me. “This is an infuriating situation … and there’s nothing I can say but that I’m very, very sorry.”
She said she’s as interested as anyone in minimizing the chance of it happening again but has a different idea of what that takes.
As a normal rule, there’s nothing particularly brave about an officeholder looking to an outside panel to study an issue that has become a political hot potato.
But in light of current efforts to demagogue the Chavez case, it’s particularly commendable for Preckwinkle to stand firm behind her original policy decision while seeking a more thoughtful review.
As Preckwinkle says, the real issue is how we decide who needs to be held in jail pending trial and who doesn’t. The current system is suspect at best, as anyone who has witnessed the rapid-fire bond hearings conducted in criminal court can attest.
“Bonds are capricious and arbitrary, and the whole community is impacted by that,” Preckwinkle asserted.
Judges have only seconds, based on sparse information, to determine proper bail — taking into account a defendant’s flight risk and potential danger to the community.
Saul Chavez, who had previously been convicted of another felony DUI, was clearly someone who should have been kept in jail pending trial. In determining flight risk, judges are allowed to take into account a defendant’s immigration status. Obviously, there was a considerable likelihood that if set free, Chavez would do precisely what he is suspected of doing — fleeing to Mexico.
But that’s no justification for every suspected illegal immigrant accused of a crime to be held in jail. Judges need to make these decisions on the total situation, just as they do for white and black Americans, some of whom also skip out on bond while nonviolent offenders are kept in jail.
Preckwinkle said she thinks those who would use the Chavez case to resume holding illegal immigrants in jail are “pandering to fear-mongering and race-baiting.”
I believe she was referring in particular to Commissioner Timothy Schneider, who has led the charge, calling this county government’s “Willie Horton moment” — a reference to a convicted felon who became a household name in the 1988 presidential race when Republicans made his black face the star of their campaign commercials against Michael Dukakis. Despite serving a life sentence, Horton was free on a weekend furlough program when he raped a woman.
I read in another paper that Horton became a symbol of bureaucratic stupidity. I’d say Horton also became a symbol of how an unscrupulous politician could win votes by using race to sow fear.
Preckwinkle isn’t going to play that game. More power to her.