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Editorial: Cook County jail reforms shouldn't put domestic violence victims at risk

Monday, May 06, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board


Cook County jail reforms shouldn't put domestic violence victims at risk

Domestic violence is a particular type of crime. Offenders may pose little risk to society at large, but they can be dangerous and even deadly to the one person they may target again and again.

A Tribune investigation shows that Cook County’s efforts to reform the bond system to relieve jail overcrowding and deal with inequities have had a disturbing consequence: Potential victims, often African-American women in lower-income communities, have been put at increased risk as their accused abusers exit jail quickly.

This reporting, by David Jackson and Madeline Buckley, raises serious questions for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Chief Judge Timothy Evans as they continue to pursue changes in the criminal justice system.

We have supported steps toward bond reform, with the caveat that experiments must be evaluated and amended as needed to ensure public safety. Our stated expectation was that the focus of these reforms would be on the treatment of people accused of nonviolent crimes. Jackson and Buckley found something different at play in the county that’s both alarming and puzzling.

The Tribune examined police reports of aggravated domestic batteryand found that bonds fell sharply, from almost $64,000 in 2016 to $13,500 in 2018. Twice as many of these domestic battery suspects were offered no-cash recognizance bonds meant for people who don’t pose a danger to the public. And more cases were dismissed altogether: 70 percent of those reviewed were dropped before trial in 2018, up from 56 percent two years earlier.

That means more of the accused do not await trial in jail. Evans’ office says 95 percent of domestic violence defendants do not commit a new crime while free on bond. But some of those released are accused of harassment, attacks and repeated violations of orders of protection. One man was arrested five times in 18 months on charges of stalking and beating his ex-girlfriend. Each time he was released, he headed to her home to terrorize her, tapping on her windows in the middle of the night. Sometimes, these cases can escalate to murder charges.

Foxx said her office does not support recognizance bonds for domestic violence offenses. Evans’ spokesman said other safety measures have been stepped up. Almost twice as many defendants, many of them in domestic violence cases, are ordered to wear GPS monitors, and judges are granting many more orders of protection. Yet victims and advocates suggest that’s not always enough. They’re right.

Domestic violence is a potentially grave offense. Cook County residents need assurances that those accused of it are not lumped into the same category as nonviolent offenders.

It’s unclear how promises to be more deft in lower-stakes cases of retail theft or minor drug offenses morphed into a lighter touch with those who allegedly beat or choke their intimate partners or family members. To determine what may have gone wrong, there needs to be more transparency related to the classification and bonding out of suspects, including better record-keeping and data analysis. Preckwinkle, Foxx and Evans all need to size up the consequences of changes to the system — and respond.

We have specific concerns about a tool used by judges to evaluate repeat offenders. The Public Safety Assessment developed by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy, tags murder, sexual assault and robbery — but not domestic violence — as violent crimes that warrant more restrictions in releasing the accused.

The assessment does not factor in arrests for domestic violence that did not result in convictions, nor previous violations of orders of protection. A spokesman for Arnold Ventures said the nonprofit plans to investigate whether its tool should contain specific provisions for domestic violence cases, DUIs and sexual abuse charges. Good, but repeat offenders and suspects should be treated as especially high risks.

Criminal justice reforms are required to fix an unjust system that allowed nonviolent, indigent defendants to get stuck behind bars because they couldn’t afford bail. That progress cannot come at the expense of domestic violence victims.


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