Cook County Chief Judge orders sweeping reform of bail system

Cook County’s chief circuit judge on Monday announced sweeping changes designed to ensure that defendants awaiting trial are not held in custody simply because they are too poor to post bond.

Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced that under a new system, to take effect in September, felony bond court judges will be required to determine whether a suspect is dangerous. If the judge determines they are not, but believes that the suspects should not be released on a mere promise that they will return to court, judges will be required to ensure that the detainee can afford the amount set.

“The net result would be no one would be held pretrial based upon an inability to pay,” Evans said in an interview.

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The change stops short of the system adopted in Washington, D.C., and other jurisdictions that have eliminated cash bail. But other public officials who had been pushing for reform widely praised the change.

Cook County’s system of requiring cash bail long had come under attack, for leaving too many people charged with non-violent crimes held in custody pretrial only because they were too poor to post whatever bond had been set.  At the other extreme, the system was criticized for releasing dangerous suspects who had access to large sums of money to post bond.

County board president Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Defender Amy Campanelli and Sheriff Tom Dart all had advocated reform, but all acknowledged they couldn’t change the system on their own. In 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court outlined several steps Cook County could take to reform the system, including adopting a scientific tool to help objectively determine a defendant’s risk of reoffending and not returning to court.

That tool, the Public Safety Assessment, was implemented in the spring of 2016, and Evans has noted that the number of non-violent defendants held in custody has dropped substantially in recent years.

Injustice Watch last year produced a series of reports documenting flaws in the system, including the arbitrary differences in bail from one courtroom to the next across the county. The county judges were facing a lawsuit, filed last October, contending that the use of cash bail violated the constitution by discriminating against poor defendants.

The judges have a pending motion to dismiss the lawsuit, with the next court date scheduled for September.

Matthew J. Piers, an attorney representing the two former Cook County Jail inmates who brought the lawsuit, said he applauded the order issued by Evans. Piers said he is wary, however, that a new chief judge could undo the order or that it may not withstand a legal challenge. If the new order does remain in place, he said, the change is what he has been advocating for and is “an acknowledgement that this is the way things have to be.”

Evans said the time was right to make the change because he and several of the county’s public officials, like State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Campanelli and County Clerk Dorothy Brown all agreed that whether someone was held in custody should not depend on the suspect’s wealth.

Foxx in an emailed statement commended the change, and said there is no clear connection between posting cash bond and ensuring both safety in the community and that a defendant will show up for court dates. “This order provides an important reminder that our focus should be on non-monetary conditions of bond to ensure appearance in court and protect public safety,” Foxx said.

Campanelli also supported the measure, saying in a statement that it “should result in more of my clients being released so they can return to their families, jobs and communities.”

In Washington, where officials have abolished reliance on cash bail, the system provides substantially greater pretrial services to assist those arrested and ensuring they show up in court.

Evans said that he will be calling on the Cook County Board to provide the pretrial services department with the personnel they need to embrace the new order.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the chair of the county board criminal justice committee, applauded the chief judge’s move in a statement, and called on the Illinois Supreme Court to enact a similar measure to end “pretrial incarceration on the basis of poverty” across the state.

Evans said the investment in pretrial services has already shown results with the financial resources they have been given.

“This justifies us taking this additional step now because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

The Circuit Court will also create a new division specifically tasked with overseeing bond court. Evans said a presiding judge will be appointed and will be housed on site at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. Several judges will be trained using the Illinois Constitution, the pretrial assessment tool and this order to oversee bond court before the order goes into effect.

With added attention on the use of cash bond, Evans said he expects a level of comfort to surface among the judges who rule on bond matters. Evans said the county leaders involved in the bail process have come to an agreement that if a judge follows the law completely, including the new order, and uses the scientific pretrial assessment tool in their decision-making, county leaders will support the judge even if the defendant’s release results in a bad outcome.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story listed the name of the court’s scientific risk assessment tool as the Pretrial Safety Assessment. The correct name is Public Safety Assessment.