Commentary: Dart's misguided approach to jail reform
Monday, March 12, 2018
by Alan Mills and Alexa Van Brunt
The Cook County Board will soon hear a proposed resolution to investigate the impact of bail reform in the county. The proposal is in response to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s recent misguided letter to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, advising her that he would not comply with court orders freeing people in jail on bond.
Dart has granted himself unilateral power to continue incarcerating people who are entitled to be released. Dart should remember he is a jailer, not a jurist.
His actions — willfully failing to obey judicial orders — have no place in a democratic society. Last September, the Cook County Circuit Court created a new policy mandating that bail be set in an amount that defendants can afford to pay. It was an essential step toward fixing a pretrial system that has historically discriminated against the poor and minorities in this county.
Now Dart claims this reform has led to an unprecedented increase in the number of people accused of gun crimes being released from jail on electronic monitoring. He says this trend justifies his willful disregard of judicial decisions about who should be released pretrial.
Dart’s claim is demonstrably false. It also distorts who should be making jail-release decisions for people who are presumed innocent of committing any crime.
It is false because there has been no real increase in the number of alleged gun offenders released since bond reform passed last fall. In a letter responding to Dart’s claims, Preckwinkle noted that the percentage of all cash bonds for gun charges only went up 1 percent since September.
There’s also no evidence that bond reform has harmed community safety: Preckwinkle cited Dart’s own data to assert that, of the 195 alleged gun offenders released pretrial since the new bond policy went into effect, only five picked up new gun charges as of Feb. 1.
Dart’s recent claims also undermine bedrock principles concerning the separation of judicial and executive function. It is not his job to determine who gets to be released on bond.
Issues of community safety are precisely those that bond court judges are tasked with deciding. In bond court, judges look at the alleged crime, the evidence supporting the charges and the accused person’s criminal history. Judges also hear from the state and the defendant as to whether bond should be set, and to consider other terms of release.
This is a weighty decision about a most basic right — the right to liberty — and it results in a binding court order.
Dart is now overriding these release decisions based on his personal feelings, and as he feels politics dictate. His unlawful actions are, unsurprisingly, publicly opposed by other Cook County stakeholders such as public defender Amy Campanelli, Preckwinkle and Timothy Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County.
Dart’s letter to Preckwinkle also implicates the worst kind of discrimination. (He wrote: “In addition, many of these individuals are immediately returning to communities plagued by gun violence.”) It is based on an assumption that people from certain neighborhoods in the city are less entitled to be released from jail than those from wealthier, whiter communities.
This is not justice.
We cannot stand by and allow this misappropriation of power to go unchecked. Sheriff Dart must respect the rule of law and accept decisions by judges, even if he thinks those decisions are wrong. If he refuses to do so, he should be replaced by someone who will.
Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, has been litigating prisoners’ rights cases for more than 35 years.
Alexa Van Brunt is a civil rights attorney and clinical professor at the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. She is litigating a class-action lawsuit about cash bond in Cook County.