Cook County prosecutor to seek release of defendants locked up on low bonds

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Cook County Courthouse

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx on Wednesday jumped into the issue of bail reform, announcing that her office would actively support agreed upon requests by public defenders that judges free defendants who remain in custody because they are unable to post bonds up to $1,000.

In a telephone interview, Foxx said that the inequities caused by seeing impoverished defendants stuck in jail awaiting trial on nonviolent offenses, where others accused of more serious offenses are able to raise the money to go free, caused her to change the policy of her office, which had often left bail consideration to the Cook County Public Defenders and the judge assigned to bond court.

“What our administration realized was that those were conversations that the State’s Attorney’s office needed to take an active role in engaging in,” she said.

Foxx, who was elected State’s Attorney in November, said her decision came after her office found in a review of recent cases that defendants jailed in lieu of bonds of $1,000 or lower were typically detained for several months as their cases proceeded.

As of Wednesday, between 200 and 250 inmates in Cook County jail were held on bonds of $1,000 or lower, said the Cook County Sheriff’s policy officer, Cara Smith.

Foxx joins a growing list of public officials who have sought to reform the bail system, spurred by jail overcrowding and the high costs of holding hundreds of nonviolent detainees only because they cannot afford to post the 10 percent bond to be free while awaiting trial. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli are among the officials who have publicly condemned the current system.

A pending lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court contends that holding detainees in custody only because they cannot post bail violates the Constitution. Injustice Watch reported in October on the many obstacles that have stymied reform, and reported in November on a study showing the arbitrary nature of the system, with bail decisions varying widely from courtroom to courtroom and from one courthouse to the next.

Foxx said her office is working to develop procedures that will encourage her attorneys to be more proactive in bond court. Her plan is to train prosecutors to look at a defendant’s case with a more “holistic” view, including teaching prosecutors to look at what a person’s criminal history may say about them and if a drug treatment program is a better option than jail.

“We want to create practices in bond court immediately so that we can identify those folks who are better served in the community,” through things like treatment programs, Foxx said.

The office of Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans has also touted its use of a tool intended to objectively determine the safety of releasing a defendant before trial.

Smith said Foxx’s announcement is a “tremendous addition” to other potential avenues of bail reform.

The state bail statute “is very, very clear that bail is not to be oppressive,” Smith said. “What the state’s attorney and public defender are going to be doing is ensuring when possible that it’s not oppressive.”

The sheriff is backing legislation pending in Springfield that would rewrite the state bail law, including one bill that proposes to abolish cash bail altogether. Other jurisdictions, including Washington D.C., have stopped relying on cash bail and instead release defendants pretrial unless they are deemed dangerous or likely to flee.

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