The risk judges take over bail

The system of bail in Cook County is about to undergo sweeping reforms. The experience described by a retired Washington state judge may explain why it has taken so long.

A long-awaited bail system is to take effect next week in Cook County Circuit Court intended to ensure that criminal suspects are not held in custody before trial simply because they are too poor to pay the bond.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced in July the bail reforms that will prohibit judges from setting bail that keeps suspects locked up pretrial who pose no danger to the community. That change is to take effect next week.

Even before then, a hearing is to take place in Cook County Chancery Court on the lawsuit filed last October on behalf of detainees who contend that it is unconstitutional to hold suspects in custody simply because of their inability to pay.

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The problems of the system — holding people in custody who did not belong there, and at times releasing dangerous people simply because they had access to large amounts of  money — have long been documented, and a variety of officials including the Cook County board president, the sheriff, the public defender and the state’s attorney have all been behind a push for reform.

But change to the system has proven stubborn, and one reason may be the bail dilemma for judges: If they keep every suspect locked up, there is little risk of bad headlines.  If they recognize that defendants are presumed innocent, they run the risk of letting out someone who does something horrid. (This is known in the legal system as the Willie Horton effect, a reference to the parolee whose release became a political albatross for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.)

After a Washington state judge was called a “vermin” for releasing a suspect who then committed a rape, the judge did something about it: He invited the reporter who wrote of the case to come observe the system firsthand. He describes in a piece for The Marshall Project in collaboration with Vice what happened.