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Commission offers chance for real reform Chicago

Thursday, January 30, 2014

by Malcolm Rich

Two major events will affect the future of criminal justice in Cook County.  One is the Illinois Supreme Court's second meeting bringing together the heads of critical departments to discuss improvements in information-sharing between the agencies.  The other is County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's resolution before the county board to approve a new plan to oversee and increase the number of jail inmates released on electronic monitoring.  

The plan would expand the number of people who are eligible under the administrative release program - the federally overseen program which currently gives the sheriff's office the authority to release up to 1,500 detainees on electronic monitoring - and would move the ultimate responsibility of the program to the president's office. The goal is to reduce the jail population to 85 percent of capacity.  

Though both these events seem like watershed moments for reform in Cook County, they are threatened by the same political obstacles that continually haunt us: A lack of cooperation between the government stakeholders in Cook County.

This weakness threatens the effectiveness of proposed and existing reforms and increases public expense.   Chicago Appleseed welcomes the intervention of the Illinois Supreme Court. If Cook County officials cooperate with the Supreme Court commission and with each other, we can adopt reforms leading to lasting solutions.  

A place to start is central bond court, which could serve as a pathway to community treatment. But to maximize the effectiveness of this function, we need coordinated programs and policies, including early assessment of defendants' cases, courtroom models such as the Access to Community Treatment (ACT) Court and probation services geared toward minimizing time in prison.  

To create a coordinated system of diversion to treatment, we need solid, objective data concerning the functioning of the central bond court. At present, it is difficult to know what the facts are.   Charges of incompetence are leveled against the bond court, and these charges, not unexpectedly, elicit reactive statements supporting current practices.   Sound data would permit evaluation of these competing claims.

For example, in December, Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans noted that bond court judges divert individuals from the jail and cited the use of monetary bonds.   But many defendants given monetary bonds cannot raise the money, and these defendants are filling the jail. 

Data from the circuit court clerk indicate that fewer than one-third of persons given monetary bonds are able to post them. In December, of the 1,643 individuals given such bonds, only 515 left the jail by posting bond.   Other large, comparable urban jurisdictions throughout the country rely on money bonds far less often than Cook County.  

Kings County, N.Y., and Miami-Dade County, Fla., for example, offer money bonds to only 14 percent and 25 percent of the defendants, respectively. Those counties rely far more on personal recognizance and electronic monitoring.   Cook County, on the other hand, gives money bonds to a whopping 49 percent of defendants.   We need to give bond court judges better information about defendants at the outset rather than rely on procedures aimed at reconsidering bond decisions.

We support the request by Evans for an expanded, independent pre-trial services unit. This unit needs to be linked to an early assessment program, like those in Philadelphia and New York.   Bond court judges will be more willing to use electronic monitoring if they have adequate information regarding the defendants that come before them.   Currently, our pre-trial services department evaluates only 15 percent of the defendants entering the jail and rarely, if ever, verifies that information.

Lacking necessary information about defendants, bond court judges are likely to set high monetary bonds in order to protect the public. Substantial change will be possible only if we expand and improve pre-trial services.   In addition, we can reduce the jail population by reducing the time spent by defendants awaiting their preliminary hearing. Currently, more than 10,000 defendants every year spend an average of 25 days in the jail only to have their cases dismissed for lack of probable cause.  

They wait this long because Illinois law allows for a maximum of 30 days between arrest and preliminary hearing - the second-longest time span in the country. Most states allow only 10 days or two weeks between arrest and the preliminary hearing. 

We support reducing through legislation the maximum time allowed from 30 to 10 days.   The new ACT Court is a very positive development that will provide the community-based treatment services necessary to keep defendants out of the corrections system.

This approach will start with one courtroom, but it must be adopted in many of our felony trial courts.   The ACT Court will be most successful if there is an early assessment of defendants using information from an independent, high-quality pre-trial services unit. It will also require well-trained probation officers who link defendants to treatment programs and help them succeed.  

Preckwinkle's proposal will work to address many of the deficiencies in our current system. Currently, however, retired judges act as magistrates under the administrative release program in order to review inmates in the jail for risk of flight and public safety - in effect, considering whether electronic monitoring could be substituted for money bonds.   These retired judges are now doing the job that bond judges and pre-trial services officers should be doing and presumably could do if they had sufficient and timely information.  We must design our system so that it works on an ongoing and sustainable basis - not just during an Illinois Supreme Court intervention, not just during the oversight of a federal overseer and not just through extraordinary actions of the Cook County Board president.  

We urge all of the stakeholders to work with the Supreme Court's commission so that we have reforms that will improve our court system so that it can meet today's challenges.  



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