Cook County bail system reforms unveiled; advocates worry not enough

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After years of protests, lawsuits, and complaints from county officials, the Cook County Circuit Court on Monday unveiled its long-awaited bail system reform. On the first day, at least, the process reflected significantly more time spent on each case, and fewer defendants sent to wait for trial in jail because of bail they could not afford.

The hearings took place in the same first floor courtroom inside the George Leighton Courthouse at 26th Street and California Ave., but a new judge was behind the bench.

The changes marked the first day that a July order by Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans to set affordable bail amounts took effect.

Injustice Watch observed as Circuit Court Judge Michael R. Clancy considered cases of 27 suspects charged with new felonies, holding only seven on bail amounts beyond what they said they could afford.

Even so, one advocate for reform said afterward that the process appears improved, but that the changes may not go far enough.

In the past, hearings at Central Bond Court often lasted about 90 seconds and frequently did not take into account how much a person could afford to post to be released.

As a result, poor defendants charged with nonviolent offenses were often left in jail, convicted of nothing, for days or weeks. In other cases, defendants accused of violent crimes would manage to pay high bonds and walk free pending trial.

On Monday, Clancy asked extensive questions of both prosecutors and defense attorneys about the bases of the charges, the defendant’s prior convictions and his or her ability to pay. He also then discussed with both parties possible conditions of the defendant’s release. In cases where he set bail higher than the stated ability to pay, he scheduled a court date within the next week for the defendant to challenge the bail, a requirement of Evans’s new rule.

Sharlyn Grace, a staff attorney at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, praised the longer hearings, but said she remains concerned the changes fall short. She said she feared the hearings Monday showed judges are still inclined to set money bond as a way to detain people. Merely reciting the language of the new rule to explain why Clancy was setting cash bond beyond what defendants could afford, she said, “doesn’t solve the problem.”

When 53-year-old Gregory Karris came before Judge Clancy on charges of driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license, he was given a $100,000 bail. He would have to post 10 percent, or $10,000, in bond to be released. Public defenders said his sister, who was in the gallery, could afford to post $100.

Prosecutors contended that Karris was pulled over after driving with a blood alcohol content of .23, well over the legal limit. Karris has three prior DUI convictions, prosecutors said. In setting his bond, Clancy said that he didn’t think a bond requiring only a promise to return to court was appropriate because of the “alcohol level,” and that he did “believe monetary bond is necessary.”

In the case of Jose Robles, a 40-year-old man charged with aggravated DUI and driving on a revoked license, Clancy heard statements about the defendant’s past DUI conviction and his longtime job cleaning carpets to support himself, his wife and children in Lake County.

Clancy ordered Robles released on electronic monitoring, explaining Robles’s recent DUI and the nature of his charge made it “not appropriate” to release him without monitoring his location. When a member of the court’s Pretrial Services Division said court workers could not track Robles in Lake County, Clancy set another hearing for Robles the following day, so that his attorneys could come up with either a money bond amount he could afford, or an address for him to stay on house arrest in Cook County while his case makes it way through court.

As he issued the new rule, Evans told Injustice Watch in July, “The net result would be no one would be held pretrial based upon an inability to pay.”

Clancy, previously a judge in the county’s domestic violence division, is one of several new judges assigned to the new Pretrial Division of Cook County Criminal Court as part of the rule’s implementation, Evans’s office announced last week. Clancy and the other new Pretrial Division judges received eight hours of training on the county’s pretrial risk assessment tool and the new order, according to Evans’s office.

Before the hearing, Grace, who also helped found the Chicago Community Bond Fund, was among the speakers at a rally of reform advocates, who then filed into bond court to observe.

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

A rally held outside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse opposing the use of money bail.

The drive to reform the local bail process stemmed from a confluence of factors: The overcrowded conditions of Cook County Jail, the costs of keeping suspects in confinement, and the alleged constitutional violations of suspects convicted of nothing but held simply because they were too poor to pay. The sheriff, the Cook County board president, the public defender and the state’s attorney all advocated reforms before Evans announced the new local rule.

Last October a class action lawsuit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of two jail inmates who contended their civil rights had been violated by being held simply because they could not post bond. That case remains pending, though attorneys for the Cook County judges are seeking to dismiss the case based on Evans’s reforms.

The push for change has been part of a nationwide movement to reform the traditional system of deciding who stays in custody and who is released based on how much money they could post. The U.S. Justice Department under the Obama administration entered some lawsuits on the side of reformers.

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