Cook County Chief Judge: “Debacle” if county board slashes budget as planned

The proposed Cook County budget cuts would be a “debacle” for the court system and could hamper efforts to release more suspects before trial, Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans said Monday.

Evans’ warning came one day before Cook County commissioners are to vote on budget cuts that would force Evans to reduce his staff by 180 people. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is proposing the cuts after the county board voted to repeal a soda pop tax that she had supported that was expected to raise $200 million in the new budget.

Speaking to reporters after appearing before South Side residents at the Sweet Holy Spirit Church, Evans said the cuts would leave the court system without enough staffing to help monitor suspects who are released from custody awaiting trial. In September Evans put in place a new local court rule that is intended to keep impoverished suspects from spending long periods in jail simply because they are too poor to make bail.

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The rule was adopted as a number of public officials, including Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart, had long complained that the jail was filled with too many suspects who were arrested on nonviolent charges and did not need to be held in custody. Evans and other Cook County judges are currently being sued by two men who seek a judicial ruling that it violates their constitutional rights to hold them only because they lack the money to post bond that others, charged with similar crimes, can post.

The movement to reform Cook County’s bail program is part of a nationwide challenge to the traditional system of bail by many lawyers and advocates who contend the system does not work. Bail reform advocates say too many people who do not belong in jail remain there because they could not raise the bond needed for release, and dangerous suspects are released if they can raise the money to get back onto the street before trial.

The Washington, D.C. court system has done away with cash bail, requiring instead that judges determine if the suspects are likely to pose a danger to the community or are likely to fail to appear in court if released. Those who fail that determination are held without bail.

Pretrial services workers gather information before the hearing to help judges assess the risk of releasing each suspect, and then monitor those who are out of custody awaiting trial to help them stay out of trouble and ensure they will appear at court hearings.

But doing that requires a large number of pretrial services workers, and Evans said those jobs are at risk in Chicago if the county board adopts the amended budget.

Calling Washington D.C. the “gold standard” of pretrial services, Evans noted the district budgets $41 million for risk assessment and pretrial monitoring for an area with a population of less than a million. In contrast, Cook County’s population is over five million, and pretrial services has $8 million budgeted for risk assessment and risk-based monitoring.  The proposed cuts, he said would severely cut even that money, so “that we won’t have the 99 people that I know we need,” Evans said. He called the staff of 99 workers necessary to “have the kind of minimum standards that could protect the public.”

He said the cuts also could violate state court rules about the necessary ratio of supervisors to court officers, and also could violate union contracts. Evans had hoped to make cuts to the judicial branch by giving employees two weeks of unpaid furlough time per year instead of laying them off, but the Board of Commissioners rejected that proposal.

The September order that Evans issued was only the latest in a series of measures that the Cook County court system has enacted to try to ensure fewer numbers of prisoners are held in custody awaiting trial. The judges began using an assessment tool in 2015 that helps calculate the risk each suspect poses; but Injustice Watch reported last year that the bail decisions varied widely from courtroom to courtroom and from judge to judge.

Injustice Watch reporters observed 453 bail hearings after the new rule was enacted, and found that fewer judges were setting money bonds and more suspects were being released. But the analysis found variation from judge to judge, and bail was set out of reach of some suspects.

Evans said yesterday that the new rule provides those detained with the right to a hearing within seven days to seek reconsideration of any bail decision.

Evans also said the Cook County jail population is down to 6,300, from an alarming 10,800 in 2013. Last week the Civic Federation reported that Evans’ office and the sheriff both fail to make enough data available to study the effectiveness of the efforts to release more suspects before trial. But Evans yesterday said it would be more effective for his office to release data on an annual basis.