Can Springfield fix Cook County’s broken bail system?

The struggle to reform Cook County’s bail system — which has kept hundreds of people charged with nonviolent crimes locked up while awaiting trial — is shifting to Springfield, where public officials and reform advocates are pushing for legislation that could upend the longstanding system.

The most striking of the proposals is a bill introduced this month by Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, that proposes eliminating the current system of relying on cash to determine who remains in custody and who is released before trial. Other bills offer less radical solutions, such as empowering the sheriff to intervene to seek bail modifications.

Some area legislators say they think the time for a statewide overhaul may be here. “Our bail system is ready for some reform,” Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, said in regards to Mitchell’s bill. “I think we can get there. I hope.”

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But organizations representing court officers as well as prosecutors warn that the impact of a widespread reform bill could greatly impact downstate counties that do not perceive a problem and fear the potential costs.

The flurry of bills in Springfield comes as local officials continue to struggle to reform a system that has left the jail overcrowded with people awaiting trial who are not deemed dangerous but lack money to be free. Alarmed by jail overcrowding heightened by the hundreds of detainees, many suffering mental illness, who advocates say do not belong in jail, a growing number of public officials — members of the state Supreme Court, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli, and Sheriff Tom Dart among them — have been seeking reform over the past few years.

But, as Injustice Watch reported in October, a series of obstacles have stood in the way of reform.

That same week, two jail inmates brought a lawsuit seeking class-action status against the county’s bond court judges and Sheriff Dart, contending that they have violated the constitutional rights of poor people by holding them in custody before trial while people who have money are freed. That case remains pending in the Cook County Circuit Court’s chancery division, and both the judges and the sheriff seek to have the case dismissed.

Cook County is one of the battlegrounds in a nationwide movement to reform the system to find means other than holding detainees unless they post cash to ensure that they show up for their court dates and stay out of trouble. Lawsuits also are pending in such other metropolitan areas as San Francisco and Harris County, Texas. And state legislators in Maryland and New Jersey have recently taken steps to end the system of cash bail, relying instead on a system in which judges hold people deemed dangerous or likely to flee, and release the rest with a series of conditions and services.

One obstacle to reform has been the opposition of the bail bond industry, which in some places heavily contributes to judges and legislators.

Though Illinois eliminated private bail bondsmen from the cash bail system years ago, myriad other political hurdles have stood in the way. Cook County’s judges have been slow to embrace reform, and the amount of bail that is set has long varied widely from one of the six county courthouses to the next — even from one judge to the next. The chief judge has encouraged the judges to use a risk-assessment tool in their bond considerations; while more defendants are being released without having to post cash bond, advocates remain critical of the pace of reform.

The lawsuit, meanwhile, has exposed a rift between those seeking reform. After the lawsuit was filed, Dart, who has long complained of the number of people locked up who do not belong in jail, for the first time publicly endorsed an end to cash bail. Matthew J. Piers, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, contends that while publicly calling for reform, the sheriff wasted an opportunity over several years to accomplish the release of more people while federal officials were monitoring the jail. Dart’s office maintains that the sheriff’s hands were tied by court-issued rules that strictly limited who could be released.

Piers contends that a finding that the current system violates the constitution would necessarily force reluctant officials to change the system. The sheriff is among officials who say that the lawsuit only complicates reform efforts.

Dart has embraced Mitchell’s bill to end the cash bail system, but his office notes that the bill faces an uphill climb. 

“Before there was even language to chew on, the concept was met with significant opposition outside of Cook County … so I expect that opposition to continue in the legislative process,” said Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer. “Outside of Cook County, the general feeling is: ‘We don’t have this problem. There’s no problem that needs to be solved by the elimination of cash bail.’”

One alternative Dart supports, said Smith, is a bill introduced by Rep. Arthur Turner, D-Chicago, that would permit sheriffs to request bail modifications for inmates. Both Piers and Matt Jones, associate director of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, say that enhanced power for sheriffs is unprecedented, and Piers notes that power could be abused.

Many downstate counties rely on the fees that they collect from cash bail to help fund their criminal justice systems, according to John McCabe, director of governmental relations for the Illinois Probation and Court Services Association. Bail reform typically requires investment in pretrial services in order to be successful.

Mitchell’s bill, for example, would require local pretrial service agencies to call or text defendants to remind them of their upcoming court dates — a practice that studies from Colorado to Delaware have found to be effective — and to provide court transportation to suspects who cannot afford it. It would also create a public data-collection system on pretrial proceedings throughout the state.

By releasing more nonviolent suspects, Mitchell said he believes that the county will save money by locking up fewer people, savings that could pay for greater pretrial services. But Jones emphasized that both financial resources and criminal caseloads differ vastly between Cook and its neighboring counties, which he said could make a “one-size-fits-all approach” to addressing bail reform problematic for downstate counties.

“People have to realize that this is going to be a tax increase for some of those counties,” McCabe said, adding that Illinois’ 177 General Assembly members comprise “an interesting mix” of lawmakers who are often affected by their constituents. “All these legislators have wonderful ideas on how to improve the criminal justice system. … I just don’t think all their colleagues are going to be ready for it just yet.”