Report: Judging bail reform impossible because officials withhold key data

Tracking the progress of Cook County bail system reforms is impossible because officials have withheld critical data needed for meaningful analysis, the Civic Federation concluded in a report released Wednesday.

The report states that the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the Chief Judge have “closely controlled” jail and bond court data. The Civic Federation called on both offices to make more information publicly available, stating their concern that the “tight control opens public officials to criticism for using data selectively, and not to measure policy effectiveness.”

Cara Smith, policy advisor for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, strenuously disputed that contention, and said that their office has brought an “unprecedented” level of transparency about jail data.

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“It stands in stark contrast to the reality,” Smith said of the report, adding that the sheriff’s office has pushed other county offices involved in bail, including the chief judge, to be more transparent.

A spokesman for Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans did not return a request for comment. Evans in recent weeks has told County Commissioners that since new court rules covering bail went into effect in September, a greater percentage of suspects are being released without being required to post bail.

But the Civic Federation examination goes back farther, studying decreases in the number of detainees held in Cook County jail the past several years. The report states that the jail population dropped by 30 percent between August 2013 and August 2017. But, the report states, the numbers raise more questions than answers because the data is incomplete, making it difficult to determine what factors have caused the drop.

The bail system has increasingly come under criticism in recent years, as Cook County jail remained overcrowded with hundreds of prisoners awaiting trial on nonviolent crimes who could not afford to post the required bail. Other suspects, accused of violent crimes, won release because they had access to money.

In 2014 the Illinois Supreme Court recommended a series of steps to improve Cook County bond court. In 2015, Cook County judges began using a scientific tool at bond hearings designed to help judges determine the likelihood a defendant would reoffend or fail to return to court.

But judges’ bail decisions still varied widely from courtroom to courtroom, and from courthouse to courthouse across Cook County.

A lawsuit was brought in October 2016 on behalf of two prisoners contending that the county’s bail system violated their constitutional rights by keeping them locked up only because they were too poor to post bail. That case remains pending, but about a year later a new rule enacted by Chief Judge Evans took effect that directs all Cook County judges to consider the amount of money a defendant can afford in setting bond.

Despite the progress noted by Evans in the first month of the new rule, bail reform advocates said that there are still too many cases in which judges are setting cash bond amounts beyond what defendants could pay.