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While detainees sit, Cook County bail reform drags on

Monday, May 22, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Jesus "Chuy" Garcia

Bail reform in Cook County appears to be a foregone conclusion. Sheriff Tom Dart and Chief Judge Timothy Evans both support major reforms that would curtail the wholesale jailing of people solely because they are too poor to post bail. A consensus is emerging that reform is overdue. Why then are thousands of poor, mostly African-American and Latino defendants still languishing at Cook County Jail? The presumption of innocence in the jail is dying a slow death. County officials should consider real, immediate solutions — including the release of detainees on personal bonds and other ideas — rather than continue to make grand statements backed by little action. Justice delayed is justice denied. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is taking a step in the right direction. She announced recently that county prosecutors would no longer oppose the release of some detainees held on nonviolent offenses. But that move doesn’t go far enough. Pretrial defendants are denied justice in a myriad of ways. They are vastly more likely to plead guilty for crimes they have not committed just to get out of jail. Those who stay in jail are more likely to reoffend after spending unnecessary time in custody. Detention can also lead to a spiral of unemployment and homelessness. I was contacted by the family of a young mother who was on the verge of losing her job after a long stay at the jail due to her inability to post bond for a low-level offense. In many ways pretrial detention further destabilizes already vulnerable communities and thus increases the risk to overall public safety. And the increased risk to public safety is not the only cost that is paid by the county’s residents for this broken system. Unnecessary pretrial detention is wildly wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars. Cook County taxpayers foot the bill at the hefty price of about $60,000 per detainee per year, resulting in millions of dollars each year — money that could be put to far better use. Bail was never meant to be punitive; it was intended simply to ensure that defendants attend hearings. When a judge orders a bail amount, he has already made the decision that the person is eligible for release. In other words, the judge has determined that public safety concerns have been met. This sets up a system where the rich can buy their way out of jail, but the poor cannot. Continuing to jail poor defendants at county expense just doesn’t make sense when such simple measures as automated court date reminder systems have been shown to be more effective for low-risk defendants, and electronic monitoring and comprehensive pretrial services have been shown to be more effective for higher-risk individuals. Cook County Jail is already a dangerous place, and unnecessarily adding to the jail population makes it only more so. Inmate fights, use of excessive force, physical injuries and even deaths increase when large numbers of individuals are corralled into cells. There is no excuse for allowing this system to continue. In addition to the human toll and real costs associated, the county judiciary also is embroiled in a lawsuit that alleges that its bail policies are unconstitutional and disproportionately violate the rights of minority defendants. One solution, state legislation that would end reliance on monetary bail, has recently been introduced in the Illinois House. We can only hope that even in its current partisan logjam, our state government may be able to move forward on this critical issue. But for those currently sitting in cells in Cook County Jail, that prospect provides little consolation. A real and immediate solution is available, and it is currently playing out in Harris County in Texas (home to Houston). Judges there have begun releasing individuals on personal bonds or on ones they can afford. Harris County is comparable to Cook County in both its overall population as well as jail population. A similar approach has been working for many decades in Washington, D.C., which has a no-cash bond system that releases 90 percent of those arrested and charged with crimes. We cannot, and should not, let political inertia stop us from taking the steps we know are just and necessary. Our existing bail statute provides that cash bail is to be a last resort, and that it must be set in an amount “considerate of the financial ability of the accused.” In order to give these mandates meaning, judges must begin holding individualized bail hearings and, before cash bail is set, must make findings that the defendant can afford to pay the amount in question. If judges will not make this effort to meaningfully comply with the law, the Illinois Supreme Court should issue rules to that effect. The court’s Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts has already recommended that judges limit the use of monetary bail. And in March 2014 the same office issued a recommendation for instituting secondary reviews for low-bond defendants in custody. The current is flowing in the right direction — but too slowly given the stakes involved. It is clear that we must end our reliance on cash bail. The only question left is, do we have the political will to do it soon? Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Chicago, is the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee of the County Board.


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