Cook County Sheriff proposes an end to cash bail

Tom Dart

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is calling for an end to the system of requiring people arrested to post bail to secure their release before trial.

Dart’s announcement Monday comes amid growing criticism of the long-standing system, used widely around the country, for judges to dictate an amount that people arrested must post, either in cash or by putting up their property, in order to be released while charges are pending. Dart and a group of judges were sued last month on behalf of two detained inmates in a lawsuit that contends that keeping people in custody only because they cannot afford to post bail violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Aides to Dart, sued in his official capacity as the county’s jailer, said then that they were on the wrong side of the lawsuit, since they had been advocating reforms to ensure people who are not dangerous and not likely to flee are released before trial.

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The U.S. Justice Department this year challenged the constitutionality of holding people in custody because they cannot afford bail. An Injustice Watch examination in October of the bail system reported 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.

“It became crystal clear that we can do all the tinkering we want and all the advocacy we want around the edges,” Cara Smith, policy chief and spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said Tuesday morning. “We’ve got to blow the system up and replace it with a system that is not dependent on wealth.”

The comments represent a shift for Dart’s office, which has supported a variety of steps that fell short of abolishing cash bail, a position advocated by Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli, among others.

The issue has long been simmering, as the Cook County Jail has been plagued with overcrowding by people, more than 90 percent of whom were awaiting trial. The Cook County Board four years ago undertook a study of the bail system, and the state Supreme Court in 2014 recommended 40 steps that could ensure people are not held pretrial needlessly.

“We’ve been working on the issue for about two years trying to address the injustices that occur when the wrong people are held in jail because they’re poor,” Smith said, adding that they have recently begun focusing on violent offenders who are able to post bail and commit more crimes when released. “It doesn’t work at either end of the spectrum,” she said.

Many officials have blamed the county’s judges for too often setting bail too high. Chief Judge Timothy Evans last month issued a press release noting that his office is adopting a series of measures that would reform the system, including a tool that provides judges in bond court with an assessment of the likelihood that individuals will fail to appear in court or commit another crime based on past criminal history and court appearances.

The Illinois bail statute requires judges to consider 36 factors in setting bond, including the current crime, a defendant’s criminal history and their prior failures to appear in court.

The sheriff’s announcement comes days after the sheriff’s office announced the jail inmate population had dropped below 8,000 over the weekend for the first time in years. This year, the daily jail population has hovered at just above 8,000, while over 2,000 people daily are on electronic monitoring.