Cook County judge to decide whether to dismiss lawsuit over bail system

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Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Advocates supporting an end to Cook County’s use of cash bail gather outside the Richard J. Daley Center civil courthouse Monday, ahead of a hearing to decide whether a judge should dismiss a lawsuit filed over the county’s bond-setting practices.

Attorneys for Cook County judges on Monday argued that Cook County Circuit Judge Celia Gamrath should dismiss a lawsuit asking her to declare the cash bail system has unconstitutionally held some suspects in custody awaiting trial simply because they are poor.

Their arguments came at a critical hearing in a Richard J. Daley Center courtroom crowded with advocates who support bail reform and the class action lawsuit. In particular, the judges’ attorney said a new rule adopted in July by Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans has made the issue moot.

That rule orders judges throughout the county to ensure they set bail that is affordable for defendants who are deemed not to pose a danger if released. The rule is to take effect next week in felony cases, and by January for misdemeanor cases throughout the county.

Evans’s order, Assistant Attorney General John Wolfsmith argued, “provides the very relief” that former Cook County Jail inmates are seeking through the lawsuit, filed last October against several criminal court judges who make oversee pre-trial release and detention.

But the former inmates’ attorney Matthew J. Piers called the new rule “simply what one man thinks is a good idea,” which could be rescinded at any time by Evans or a successor.

Wolfsmith disagreed.

“There’s no proof the order is temporary,” he said. “There should be every expectation the order will be followed.”

The suit was filed amidst a nationwide movement to reduce the jailing of poor defendants simply because they cannot afford to post bond. Reforms to the bail system have taken place in states from New Jersey to New Mexico, and lawsuits have been brought in various jurisdictions. The U.S. Justice Department came out last year in support of bail reform, and former Attorney General Eric Holder issued a report saying Cook County’s bail system is “irrational, unjust, costly, and disproportionately affects minority communities.”

The issue has been brewing for years, spurred both by the cost of holding nonviolent suspects in the overcrowded jail system, and by the hardship imposed on those impoverished defendants awaiting trial.

Injustice Watch last year reported that hundreds of suspects arrested but not convicted of nonviolent crimes have been held in Cook County jail each month, unable to post bail, while some dangerous suspects with access to money have managed to post bond and be free from custody. An Injustice Watch study of the system found bail amounts widely from judge to judge, and courthouse to courthouse, around the county.

Evans’s order is one of several efforts by local officials to address the problems.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has directed prosecutors to seek the release of certain defendants locked up on low bail amounts. Public Defender Amy Campanelli has stated publicly the state Supreme Court should issue new rules for judges statewide to set affordable bail amounts. And Sheriff Tom Dart, who was initially named in the lawsuit but has since been dismissed, has advocated for an end to the money bail system and pushed for statewide bail reform bills in Springfield.

A new state law, passed this year, also directs judges to consider an inmate’s ability to pay when setting bail. But Piers told Gamrath that law is merely a restatement of existing state law, which he said Cook County judges are violating.

A coalition of Cook County advocates has also formed to push for the elimination of cash bail, and members of the group spoke outside the courthouse before the hearing on Monday.

Among them was Devoureaux Wolf, a Chicago artist who was jailed last year before the Chicago Community Bond Fund posted money for his release. “Cook County Jail is no place for anyone to be,” Wolf said.

Judge Laura Sullivan last April required Wolf to post $3,000 to be released on charges he hit a police officer, in an incident that began when police pulled him and his companions over for not wearing seat belts, according to court records. Wolf spent a month and a half in jail before being bonded out, because his family needed the money for a funeral. Being jailed put his career at risk and meant he could not care for his child, he said.

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