Cook County has cut its jail population nearly in half since 2013 — decreasing it by over 4,000 inmates — but a feared increase in violent crime did not follow, according to a report released by Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans’ office Thursday.
The report details that eight of every 10 defendants made it to all court appearances and that eight of every 10 defendants remained charge-free on pretrial release.
The changes to the jail population follow a sweeping change Evans ordered Sept. 18, 2017, designed to ensure that suspects awaiting trial are not held in custody simply because they could not afford the bail amounts ordered by Cook County judges. Those changes came amid calls for reform from several criminal justice officials including the county board president, the state’s attorney, the county public defender and the sheriff; and after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of impoverished inmates contending it was unconstitutional to keep them locked up only because of their poverty.
The old system also suffered from the inconsistencies of individual judges, leaving the settling of bail uneven from courtroom to courtroom and the different courthouses around the country.
In his 2017 order, Evans directed judges to focus on detaining inmates who posed a safety risk, releasing other inmate on certain conditions as they await case disposition.
“The court has been at the forefront of bail reform in Illinois,” the chief judge was quoted as saying in a press release Thursday, “and we used a risk-based assessment to assist with decisions on releasing pre-trial defendants.”
Evans directed in July 2015 that judges rely on a tool, developed in 2013 by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in 2013, to assess from various information gathered by court staff the likelihood that defendants will fail to appear to court dates, engage in new criminal activity and engage in new violent crime activity if released from jail before trial. The tool, first implemented in July 2015, is now used by judges in Cook County to make decisions on a defendant’s bail.
The October 2016 lawsuit was filed by Civil Rights Corps, the MacArthur Justice Center, and Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, raised concerns by community activists, both in Cook County and nationwide, to challenge the longstanding system that left jails filled with suspects, who are often from poor, black, and Latino communities, and have not yet been convicted of anything.
“This report is a celebration of how far we’ve come, and we have made progress, but more than 2,000 people are in jail in Cook County, and those people are there only because they can’t afford to pay money bail,” Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, told Injustice Watch.
Following publication of this article, the Office of the Cook County Sheriff told Injustice Watch the number of inmates currently detained who cannot afford to post money bond is 1,995.
Grace said the county has not shifted its attention to robust detention hearings, or allocated significant resources and attention to the bond process. And she said that even if someone can come up with the money to post bond, the money bond system still can increase recidivism in low-income communities because of the strain it can place on poor households.