Cook County commissioners to examine bail practices in public hearing

Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia announces a public hearing to examine the county's bail practices.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia announces a public hearing to examine the county’s bail practices.

Cook County board commissioners are planning to hear next month from experts and affected residents on the county’s bail practices, spurred by a newly filed lawsuit that contends the practice of keeping people in custody only because they cannot afford bail violates the constitution.

“We owe it to our taxpayers to investigate any claims of excessive or unfair pretrial detention practices,” County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, chair of the board’s criminal justice committee, said at a news conference Monday to announce a Nov. 17 public hearing. The news conference was attended by several commissioners, who called for improvements to the bail system but stopped short of supporting specific solutions or alternatives.

An Injustice Watch investigation published this month found that the bail-to-jail pipeline in Cook County keeps thousands of defendants, including hundreds accused only of misdemeanors, in punishing conditions at the jail for days, weeks, and months as they await trial.

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“When someone who poses no flight risk or danger to themselves or others is detained, it increases the likelihood that they will go deeper into the criminal justice system,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at the news conference. “We’re talking about categories of charges that do not involve a threat to public safety. These are nonviolent offenders.”

On Oct. 14 a lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Cook County Jail inmates against Cook County circuit judges who set bail as well as Sheriff Tom Dart, who operates the jail where thousands of people are held each day because they are unable to post the bond required for their release before trial. Dart has advocated for releasing more nonviolent offenders pretrial, and his office expressed chagrin that he was named in the suit.

County officials plan to invite criminal justice experts, judges from jurisdictions that do not use cash bail, and people affected by the bail system to speak at the hearing.

Garcia, Preckwinkle, and three other commissioners criticized the county’s handling of the bail system, particularly its disproportionate impact on African American and Latino defendants and the hefty cost of keeping low-income defendants in jail. African Americans are more likely to be detained on money bond in Cook County than defendants of other races, and Latinos are given the highest bond amounts, according to Garcia.

The lawsuit contends that deciding whether people are held or released based on their ability to pay violates the constitution, challenging the system of setting cash as a condition of release.

When questioned by a reporter, none of the commissioners came out in support of ending the use of cash bail, deferring to the outcome of the lawsuit.

“We want to hear from experts and affected individuals about their plight and the impact that the present application of the cash bail statute is having in Cook County,” Garcia said. “I think once the lawsuit is heard in court it will become a lot clearer what needs to happen in order for fairness to prevail.”

The commissioners took no issue with the Illinois bail statute, which contains 36 factors judges must consider when setting a defendant’s bail, but rather judges’ application of the law.

A lot of the judges, understandably, I guess, are worried about being the Willie Horton judge.said Commissioner John Fritchey, referring to the Massachusetts convict whose crimes, after being released on a furlough program, became a political liability for Gov. Michael Dukakis as he ran for president in 1988. “Judges have a wide leeway in how they can set bond, and I think the state’s attorney’s office has a wide leeway in what bonds they should be asking for.”

Preckwinkle noted the county’s progress in lowering the jail’s average daily population by about 25 percent from about 10,000 inmates since she took office in 2010. The population has been lowered enough to close three jail divisions, one of which will be demolished next month, she said, and the rates of recidivism and failure to appear in court for those released have not changed.

The Cook County Circuit Court has been implementing in recent months a tool developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that attempts to objectively determine for judges the danger a defendant poses if released before trial.

“I hope that’s a positive development,” Garcia said of the tool. “I think what the suit is seeking can be much more transformative.”