Wide range of groups push for statewide change on bail

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A wide-ranging coalition of more than 70 local and national organizations and individuals called on Tuesday for the Illinois Supreme Court to adopt a statewide rule that would ensure suspects would not be held in jails awaiting trial simply because they could not afford bail.

The signatories of a letter submitted to the court included unions, legal advocates, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Illinois League of Women Voters, all throwing their support behind a statewide rule that would require judges to hold an evidentiary hearing to ensure arrested suspects have the financial ability to pay before setting monetary bail. Their letter supports a proposal submitted by a group of Cook County officials last month that include the chief judge, public defender, state’s attorney and sheriff.

The push for a rules change comes amidst a nationwide movement to end a bail system that has caused thousands of suspects nationwide to remain locked up for weeks or months awaiting trial, often on non-violent charges, because they could not raise the required bail, while other more dangerous suspects walk free if they have access to money. Cook County is one of the key jurisdictions in the battle over the issue; bail fund organizations from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to Brooklyn signed onto the letter.

The letter was sent from the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and contends that “the current practice in Illinois courts of using unpayable monetary bail to detain people is illegal and unconstitutional.”

The letter noted that the current use of monetary bail contradicts previous findings in the Illinois courts that large bail amounts violate suspects’ constitutional rights, as well as provisions in the Illinois Bail Statute that monetary bail ought to be a last resort for holding those charged of a crime. The letter also described the consequences for suspects who are held pretrial, citing research that “pretrial detention results in higher rates of conviction and longer sentences,” and can lead innocent defendants to plead guilty to crimes. According to the letter, research also shows that African-American defendants are “the least likely to be released without monetary bail and the least likely to be able to pay a bail if given one.”

Cook County public officials and local activists had complained in recent years that the system of bail caused jail overcrowding, favored rich over poor suspects, and caused harm to arrested suspects who never were convicted of anything. Attorney Matthew J. Piers, one of the signers of the letter, brought a lawsuit last year against the county’s judges on behalf of impoverished defendants, contending the system is unconstitutional.

Injustice Watch reported last year that its own study of the system showed widespread disparities from courtroom to courtroom and from judge to judge in how bail was set across the county.

In September, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans enacted a new countywide rule that required the county’s judges to determine whether defendants can afford the monetary bail amount before setting it. Evans also reassigned a new set of judges to oversee central bond court.

Evans told the county board of commissioners in October that in the first month with the new rule, the number of defendants allowed release before trial had almost doubled, from 25 percent to 49 percent.

Injustice Watch reported the same month that while more suspects were being released without having to post bail, the bail decisions still varied based on which judge is presiding in court, and that some judges were still ordering defendants held on monetary bond amounts they could not pay.

The judges have asked Cook County Circuit Judge Celia G. Gamrath, who is overseeing the case filed by Piers, to dismiss the lawsuit based on Evans’ adoption of the new rule. Piers, however, has contended that Evans’ rule is not the ultimate solution, both because it could be rescinded by a future chief judge and because Evans’ rule has no impact outside Cook County. A Supreme Court rule could address these problems.

“We’re urging the Supreme Court to do something that would moot our lawsuit,” Piers told Injustice Watch on Tuesday. “I would love it if the Supreme Court could put our lawsuit out of business.”

A spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court said Tuesday that the proposed rule has been submitted to the Evidence Based Pretrial Practices Committee of the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges, which will consider the proposal and make a recommendation. If a committee makes a favorable recommendation, the Supreme Court Rules Committee would present the proposed rule at a public hearing, and then advise the Supreme Court whether to adopt the rule.