Lawsuit: Cash bail in Cook County violates rights of poor accused of crimes

A newly filed lawsuit contends that thousands of poor people, especially African Americans, are being illegally locked up before trial in Cook County because they are too poor to be able to post bond.

Cook County Courthouse

Cook County Courthouse

Thousands of impoverished people, especially African Americans, are being illegally locked up before trial in Cook County because they are too poor to be able to post bond, a newly filed lawsuit contends.

The complaint, filed late Friday in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of two jail inmates, contends that the Cook County circuit court judges and Sheriff Tom Dart are violating the constitution by illegally setting bond that poor people cannot pay and then holding them in jail while they await trial.

The lawsuit seeks certification as a class action on behalf of anyone confined in Cook County jail unable to pay bail. It makes Cook County only the latest jurisdiction to face litigation over its bail practices, which the lawsuit contends violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive bail, fines, and cruel and unusual punishment. The suit against Cook County would involve the largest number of people detained of any suit over bail filed so far.

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Demanding bonds whether or not defendants are able to pay results in “widespread and systemic racial discrimination,” states the lawsuit filed on behalf of two men who were in the jail on Friday: Zachary Robinson, 25, and Michael Lewis, 40. The suit contends Cook County’s imposition of cash bail hurts poor defendants by separating them from their families, keeping them from jobs or school, and hampering their ability to prepare a defense, often forcing them to plead guilty regardless of innocence.

The lawsuit, filed by lawyers in Washington and Chicago, notes a disparate impact of money bail on African American defendants.

“Money bail is one of the most senseless, devastating, and anachronistic features of modern American law, and it is shockingly applied in Cook County to keep thousands of people in jail cells at taxpayer expense every day — not because they are dangerous but because they are poor,” said Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps in Washington D.C., who has challenged bail practices in jurisdictions as varied as Alabama, Texas and California.

”We have brought dozens of cases across the country to vindicate a very basic idea: our government should never put a human being in a cage simply because she cannot make a monetary payment,” Karakatsanis said Sunday. “We must have very good reasons for depriving a person of her fundamental liberty.

The U.S. Justice Department in August went on record in a Georgia lawsuit arguing that jailing people because they cannot afford bail is both unconstitutional and violates good public policy. “Bail practices that do not account for indigence result in the unnecessary incarceration of numerous individuals who are presumed innocent,” the department’s brief states.

Cook County Jail

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

Cook County Jail

An Injustice Watch investigation published Friday showed that the bail-to-jail pipeline in Cook County and nationwide keeps poor defendants accused of crimes in jail for days, months and even years as their cases make their way through the slow-turning wheels of justice. Even being required to post a small amount of money to be released from jail before trial can pose a substantial barrier for many defendants.

Cook County officials in recent years have taken steps to reduce the number of people who are ordered held in jail pretrial because they cannot post bail. But Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, in her budget address, emphasized that more must be done.

In Cook County a judge sets bail following arrest, and if a monetary bond is assigned defendants are detained if they cannot post 10 percent of the bail amount in cash or property as bond. The average Cook County detainee spends 59 days, on average, in custody – 33 days longer than the national average, the investigation revealed.

The cash bail system is designed to ensure that people charged with crimes return to court and will not do something dangerous if released. Advocates of ending cash bail contend that dangerous people, or people likely to flee, should not be allowed to get out of jail even if they have enough money, and those who are not dangerous or likely to flee should not be kept in jail if they do not.

The lawsuit names as defendants the Cook County judges who set bail, and Sheriff Dart, who operates the jail. Dart has been critical of the number of nonviolent people who fill the jail, which has an average daily population of more than 8,200. As of Friday, the jail population included 271 people who could not post $1,000 to be released, and four who needed just $100, according to Cara Smith, Dart’s policy adviser and spokeswoman.

Smith, who called Cook County’s bond amounts “unconscionable,” noted the sheriff’s efforts to help those detained at the jail.  Dart, she said, is pushing for state legislation that would allow the sheriff’s office to file motions to seek bond reductions for inmates — a step short of the lawsuit’s goal of ending cash bail entirely.

“We have a front row seat in the Cook County Jail to unjust incarceration,” she said. “We are perplexed at being named one of the defendants. It seems we would be more properly situated at the other side of the ‘v.’”

Smith said she has not yet reviewed the two plaintiffs’ individual cases but said Dart is “the champion for the very people in the lawsuit.”

Chief Judge Timothy Evans’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Michael Lewis

Cook County Sheriff's Office

Michael Lewis, 40.

Robinson has been in jail since last December, unable to post $1,000 bond after he was arrested for the theft of a laptop. Lewis, according to the lawsuit, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and has been held since Oct. 3 on felony charges of retail theft, unable to post $5,000 bond.

The lawsuit is brought on their behalf by Civil Rights Corps, together with Chicago-based Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick, Dym and the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

“Cash bail is an almost perfect example of what is wrong with our criminal justice system,” said attorney Matthew J. Piers. “When bail is set in amounts that arrestees cannot post, it robs the presumptively innocent of their fundamental right to liberty and severely handicaps their ability to defend against their criminal charges. It is time for our courts and other public officials to declare an end to this shameful practice.”

For Robinson, one of the plaintiffs in the Cook County suit, his inability to post $1,000 has kept him behind bars for over 10 months, resulting in the loss of his job, his apartment and his girlfriend, according to the lawsuit. The decision that changed the course his life was made by a Cook County judge in a matter of minutes.

During the afternoon felony bond call at central bond court on Dec. 10, 2015, Cook County Circuit Court judge Peggy Chiampas heard Robinson’s case. Injustice Watch was by coincidence in the courtroom, observing bond hearings as part of its months-long investigation into the bond system in Cook County and nationwide.

Zachary Robinson, 25.

Chicago Police Department

Zachary Robinson, 25.

Robinson was arrested a day earlier and charged with a felony for allegedly stealing a laptop – which prosecutors said was valued at $1300 at his bond hearing – from the City Colleges of Chicago, Kennedy-King campus. Robinson was a student at the school studying construction management, according to the lawsuit. The defendant, who has several prior convictions including one in 2012 for stealing an iPad from a Chicago Transit Authority commuter, was on parole at the time of his arrest for 2014 manufacturing and delivering cannabis conviction. The alleged theft was caught on videotape, according to the police report.

After hearing the facts of the case and Robinson’s criminal history, Chiampas assigned him a bond that would allow him to be released on his own recognizance while confined to his home on electronic monitoring. Robinson was living with a friend at the time and had been living in the same residence for three years, according to the lawsuit.

But then, as Robinson walked back towards the holding cell, he made a noise. Chiampas called him back before the bench and changed the bond from electronic monitoring to a $10,000 monetary bond, requiring Robinson to post 10 percent of the amount in order to be released from jail.

Robinson bond sheet

A court document from criminal defendant Zachary Robinson’s bond hearing. The “$75,000 I-EM” note is scribbled out and above it “$10,000-D” is written.

“I can’t pay the $1,000,” Robinson wrote in a letter attached to the lawsuit. “My mom can’t pay it either.”

In January, Robinson and his attorney requested his condition for release be changed to electronic monitoring because of his inability to post a cash bond, but Cook County judge Sandra G. Ramos denied his request, according to court records.

Ten months later, Robinson remains jailed on the theft charge. During the time he has been detained, Robinson wrote in a letter attached to the lawsuit, he has been the victim of violence by other detainees at the jail. He also said he lost his full-time job as a butcher at Jesse’s Meat Market, and has been unable to continue his education.

His next court hearing for his criminal case is Nov. 3.

Lewis, the other detainee named in the lawsuit, was charged with felony retail theft and has been unable to post 10 percent of the $50,000 bond he was assigned by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Adam Bourgeois Jr. Lewis makes about $6,000 a year working as a caterer, according to the lawsuit.