Cook County Board members hear calls to end cash bail

Bail reform is more than just "the right thing to do," officials and criminal justice experts argued at a public hearing Thursday—it's also safe and affordable.

Updated: An earlier version incorrectly paraphrased Professor Cynthia Jones.

A committee of Cook County commissioners heard a series of witnesses testify Thursday that the system of holding most people in custody unless and until they make cash bail is costly, ineffective and may not be constitutional.

Experts from Cook County and around the country testified that the system can be reformed without terrible consequences in terms of safety or cost. A panel of people who had been arrested described their experiences in bond court, on electronic monitoring and incarcerated in jail before trial.

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“Money becomes the driver of who’s in jail,” said Sharone Mitchell, director of the Illinois Justice Project. He said the system is a failure, keeping people who do not belong in custody locked up while freeing dangerous people simply because they have the means to post bail.

The day-long hearing adds momentum to a growing drive to end the cash bail system in Cook County. Bond court judges and the sheriff, as custodian of the jail, were sued in October by two jail inmates who contend the system illegally held them before trial simply because they could not afford bail. Sheriff Tom Dart’s policy chief this week announced the system should be “blown up,” calling for an end to requiring cash as the condition under which a defendant is held or not.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and County Public Defender Amy Campanelli both are among the advocates of reforming the system. Injustice Watch reported last month that efforts by Cook County officials to release more pretrial defendants have faced a number of obstacles. The jail is filled with thousands of people each day who have not been convicted of anything but remain locked up because they cannot post the required bond, regardless of whether they pose any danger.

“There is not a woman or man wearing a robe in the District of Columbia who would ever dream of returning to the dark, dysfunctional and radically unfair days of deciding personal freedom by dollar bills,” said Superior Court Judge Truman A. Morrison of Washington, D.C., which years ago stopped requiring cash as a condition for release.

In places such as Washington that have moved from cash bail, judges decide whether an arrested person is likely to be dangerous or to flee if released, using risk-assessment tools that are designed to make the decision less subjective. Cook County judges in recent months have also begun using a risk-assessment tool, and the number of people held awaiting trial in Cook County Jail has dropped significantly.

Critics contend that Cook County judges too often ignore the tool and end up holding in custody too many people who are accused of nonviolent crimes. Officials in the chief judge’s office note that they are bound to consider, under state law, 36 different factors in setting bail, and that the risk-assessment tool is not the sole consideration.

Campanelli contended Thursday that too many of her indigent clients are held unnecessarily, adding that judges should release more people and that the state law should be reformed.

Some experts warned of the racial component to the cash bail system. Not only are most people in Cook County Jail black; Professor Cynthia Jones of American University Washington College of Law said that being black increases a person’s chances of being denied bail by 25 percent, while being Latino increases those same chances by 24 percent.

“If you ain’t got no money, your freedom is nothing” to the judges setting bond, testified one man, 21, who had been locked in jail, unable to post bond despite having no prior criminal record.

Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the chair of the board’s public safety committee, said that “reducing Cook County’s reliance on cash bail is not only the right thing to do”; changing the system “has the added benefit of saving county taxpayers potentially tens of millions of dollars.”