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Ending the 'innocence tax' in Cook County

Monday, March 09, 2015
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

You might call it a tax on innocence, a levy on some people who least can afford to pay it. And now a group of public officials is proposing to ease it, at least in Cook County.

Under proposed state legislation unveiled today by Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey and a group of Illinois lawmakers, the county would have to limit the amount it collects in mandatory bail-bond processing fees imposed on people accused of a crime who want to be out of jail while awaiting trial.

Right now, the county, specifically the Clerk of the Circuit Court, gets to keep 10 percent of posted bail, whether the bond is $500 or $50,000, and whether the suspect involved ultimately is found innocent or guilty. That amounted to a cool $5.6 million in 2013.

The Fritchey measure, sponsored by an unusual coalition of African-American Democrats from Chicago as well as DuPage County Republicans, would make that fee a flat $100.

"At a time when we're trying to keep fewer people behind bars, we shouldn't get a windfall," Fritchey said in an interview. With 86 percent of the county jail inmates either African-American or Hispanic, "our overreliance on a money-based bail system disproportionately impacts low-income people and minorities, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and incarceration. Every year, the county takes millions of dollars out of their pockets with no regard to their guilt or innocence."


One sponsor, Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove, said it's clear that the processing of bail payments costs Clerk Dorothy Brown the same whether the bond is $10,000 or $100,000. "To charge a percentage rather than a flat fee serves no purpose other than to provide a revenue stream for government bureaucracy, and it needs to be changed."

Ms. Brown's office had no immediate comment on the proposal, but it regularly has trumpeted how it provides cash for the county by imposing fees on various matters.

Fritchey noted that the current system dates to the 1960s. "I don't blame her," he said of Brown. "The system predates her. But I don't see her or any clerk trying to change it."

Fritchey said he has not yet asked County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to take a position.

Among other co-sponsors are Sen. Patricia Van Pelt of Chicago and Michael Connelly of Lisle. Other well-known lawmakers are expected to add their names when legislation is filed later this week, Fritchey said.

The bill intentionally applies only Cook County. On its face, it sounds like an awfully good idea.

Update, 4:30 p.m. — Clerk Brown is out with a statement, and she has some concerns about Fritchey’s proposal.

“The injustice that results in the disproportionate confinement of minority and low-income people is an issue about which I am very passionate and have raised serious concerns about for many, many years; and I would never do anything to exacerbate this crisis,” she says. But, “These funds are currently used to cover the ‘bail bond costs’ relevant to bail setting, payment, and processing, which includes expenses associated with the services of the judiciary, sheriff, state’s attorney, public defender, and the court clerk, as well as the pre-trial services staff used to help judges make decisions for setting bail.”

She concludes, “I am sure that Commissioner John Fritchey has a plan for how he and the Board of Commissioners will sufficiently cover these criminal justice system expenses in lieu of the $5.6 million in future County budgets; so it’s important for the County Board as a whole to review this measure.”

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