Sheriff dropped from lawsuit challenging bail; focus now on Cook County judges

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After months of protest by the office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, attorneys challenging the constitutionality of the cash bail system have agreed to drop Dart as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Matthew J. Piers, one of the attorneys for the jail inmates, said he decided to drop Dart from the lawsuit to “focus on where the real fight is, and that’s with the judges” who set bail.

The lawsuit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court last October, the same week that Injustice Watch began a series of articles exposing the flaws in a system that has left thousands of suspects accused of nonviolent crimes locked for days or weeks in the jail simply because they could not afford bail, while other arrestees facing charges of violent crimes were set free because they had access to money.

The sheriff’s office has long complained that Dart was wrongly named in the lawsuit, as he has been vocal that too many inmates were housed in Cook County Jail who did not belong there. Weeks after the lawsuit was filed, Dart announced that he was advocating an end to the system of deciding who is held in custody and who is released based on what cash they could raise.

After the lawsuit was filed, both the Cook County bond court judges and Dart filed motions to dismiss the case, contending that the lawsuit is not the proper way to solve the problems related to bail. “It’s unfortunate that it took [the plaintiffs] months to come around to doing the right thing,” Dart’s policy officer, Cara Smith, said Monday.

Piers contended that Dart was named as a defendant, along with the judges, because of his position as custodian of those held in custody awaiting trial. He said that Dart may be renamed later for the inmates to accomplish “the relief that we ultimately request” — release from custody.

The agreement to dismiss Dart from the case was disclosed on Monday as part of papers filed by Piers responding to the sheriff and judges’ motions to dismiss the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, and the sheriff’s opposition, exposed rifts between groups advocating reform of the system of bail.

Piers 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.

The lawsuit is one of several filed around the country in recent months, spurred by the group Civil Rights Corps, that challenge the constitutionality of keeping defendants in custody pretrial because they are impoverished while others charged with similar crimes go free. Sheriffs in other communities, including Ed Gonzalez of Harris County, Texas, have welcomed litigation as the means to accomplish change.

Dart’s office, in contrast, has opposed the lawsuit from the start: It “has done nothing but complicate” the sheriff’s efforts to accomplish reform, Smith said earlier. “Litigation is not the way to solve this problem.”

Instead, Dart is pushing legislative change in Springfield, supporting two pending bills.

One would end the use of cash bail entirely, while the other expands the sheriff’s ability to request lower or higher bail for inmates.

Piers on Monday said that the legislative gridlock makes any solution unlikely without the pressure from a court ruling that the current system violates the constitution. Nothing in Springfield seems to be working, he said, adding, “By that I don’t mean nothing related to bail, I mean nothing.”

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