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Legislation to abolish state cash-bail system is introduced

Friday, February 10, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Frank Main

Cook County Jail | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Cook County Jail | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

A state representative from Chicago on Friday proposed a radical reform to Illinois’ criminal-justice system, introducing a bill that would do away with cash bail.

Working in concert with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, state Rep. Christian Mitchell has filed a bill that would allow people charged with nonviolent offenses to be released on their own recognizance until their court hearings. Judges would continue to have the discretion to order detention or electronic monitoring for people accused of harming others, Mitchell said.

“In our current system, whether or not someone is in jail has more to do with wealth than risk,” Mitchell said. “Our jails have become as [Cook County] President [Toni] Preckwinkle has often said, the intersection between racism and poverty in this state and in this country.”


State Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago

State Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago | Provided photo


Mitchell said about 62 percent of people in Cook County Jail can’t afford to pay their money bond. Many of them are charged with nonviolent crimes.

Mitchell, a former aide to Preckwinkle, said the state’s traditional cash-bond system is unfair to poor Illinois residents, some of whom lose jobs while they are locked up on minor charges.


Sheriff Tom Dart | Sun-Times file photo

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart | Sun-Times file photo


In November, Sheriff Dart called for abolishing the cash-bond system. Not only is it unfair to the poor, but puts society in danger when defendants with violent backgrounds have the money to post bail and are freed until trial, he said.

Mitchell’s bill would require a change to Illinois’ bail statute. Now, judges set bail for most people charged with crimes. Typically, a defendant needs to pay 10 percent of that amount to get a bond to leave jail before trial.

Last year, the sheriff’s office pointed to one day — Nov. 14 — when there were about 200 people locked up in jail and they each needed $1,000 or less to post bail.

Currently, judges receive a public-safety assessment from court staffers with a score showing the risk of releasing a defendant. The sheriff’s office has proposed making that evaluation even more thorough in a no-cash system.

Other states are also considering doing away with cash bail — and Washington, D.C., eliminated the system years ago. Meanwhile, a lawsuit challenging the system — filed on behalf of Cook County inmates — is pending.

Cara Smith, chief of policy for Dart, said it’s critical that social services are available to make sure people who are released from the jail return to court for their hearings and receive whatever substance-abuse or mental-health treatment they need. She noted that Washington has a $60 million annual pre-trial budget.

“Ours is a fraction of that,” she said. “They have invested significantly in pre-trial services so they can make sure people get back to court and can get treatment, like they do in the jail.”

Preckwinkle and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx have both supported the idea of reforming the county’s bail system. In November, Foxx said it’s “being exploited to the degree that it’s not so much about people’s threat to safety, but their ability to pay.”

The Rev. Dwayne Grant, pastor of Xperience Church in Englewood, said he’s personally familiar with the need for bail reform.

Before he was a pastor, he said he was arrested on a minor charge but could not afford the $1,000 bail to get out until trial.

“Bond court is like an assembly line,” Grant said. “They don’t listen to you. They don’t listen to testimony. It’s a machine.”

“I ended up having to come up with $1,000 in bail money that I didn’t have. I spent weeks in jail while my wife worked getting the bail money together.”

“I sat in that jail for 24 hours a day facing threats because I refused to claim a sect, a gang faction or an affiliation,” Grant said. “Now as a pastor I see that there are thousands of people in our communities who sit in jail, though they have not been convicted of a crime, but because they can’t afford bail.”

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