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Cook County could go into the bail bond business

Friday, November 15, 2013
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

A rather unorthodox plan to alleviate overcrowding at the Cook County Jail is starting to pick up some steam on the County Board. The idea: Make the county the bail bondsman of last resort. Under the proposal by Commissioner Larry Suffredin, the county would establish a loan fund that would post bond for people charged with non-violent offenses — oftentimes drug charges — but who do not have the few hundred dollars needed to bail themselves out pending trial. The detainee not only would have to be charged only with a non-violent misdemeanor or felony, but be eligible for certain low-risk bonds as determined by a judge; need no more than $2,000, and possess or apply for health insurance. Right now, the average daily jail population is hovering around 10,000, the level at which the federal courts have threatened to order remedial steps, says Mr. Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat. "We're in real jeopardy of being ordered to build a new jail division, which would cost us $300 million," said Mr. Suffredin. He estimated his proposal could cut the jail population by about 10 percent. "I just don't think we should pay and be penalized because someone is too poor to post bond. These are non-violent people who are presumed innocent under the constitution. They're just poor." So far, the idea is gaining a cautious but promising reaction from fellow commissioners, who agreed to submit Mr. Suffredin's proposal to a study that's due by March 1. "I think it has merit — to a certain extent," said Elmwood Park Republican Peter Silvestri. "I don't know if we want to become a jail bondsman. If we put up the money, what incentive do those released have to come back? . . . But I want to see what the costs are. What is the impact on overcrowding at the jail?' Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was not available for comment. Jail officials say it costs about $143 a day to feed, clothe and house the average inmate. County President Toni Preckwinkle, who for many years has argued that too many drug offenders are being locked up, said she's "open to any and all ideas when it comes to reforming the criminal justice system." But, in a statement, her office says the issue is "complex" and needs to be "thoroughly reviewed." Mr. Suffredin said he hopes to have the bail fund up and running by the middle of next year. 12:25 p.m. update: Mr. Dart's responded: “We support it. We support any proposal that is going to alleviate jail overcrowding that will get non-violent people out.”

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