Breaking: Former judges, prosecutors urge Illinois Supreme Court to reform bail

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Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Cook County Jail

A group of 87 attorneys, many of them prominent former federal and state prosecutors, judges, and law professors, have signed their names to a letter that urges the Illinois Supreme Court to adopt rules that would ensure indigent suspects are not held in custody before trial only because of their inability to pay bail.

“We are deeply concerned about public safety in the State of Illinois,” states the letter, dated Monday and sent to the rules committee of the state Supreme Court. “But there simply is no credible evidence that the current application of money bond in Illinois makes our communities safer.” A copy of the letter was made available to Injustice Watch.

The letter urges the court to adopt a statewide rule as urged by a group of groups late last year.

Retired Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge Ann Claire Williams; retired Illinois Appellate Judge and DePaul Law School Dean Warren D. Wolfson; and former U.S. Attorneys Daniel Webb, Thomas P. Sullivan, and Scott Lassar are among the many prominent signatories.

The letter is the latest in a series of efforts by supporters of bail reform to ensure that defendants who are not dangerous nor likely to flee are not held awaiting trial only because of their inability to pay the amount of bail the judge set. Illinois’s bail reform movement is part of a nationwide effort to reform bail, on the theory that it is unconstitutional to hold suspects in circumstances where, if they had wealth, they would be free until trial.

The bail effort in Illinois was driven in recent years in part by the high costs of keeping suspects who could not post the required cash bond in custody until trial; overcrowding the jail and creating many hardships on suspects who in many cases were found innocent or given minor sentences that were exceeded by their time in jail awaiting resolution.

In November 2016 Injustice Watch reported that its study of 1,398 bail cases, in courtrooms throughout the county, showed an arbitrary system where bail decisions varied from courtroom to courtroom, and courthouse to courthouse.

That same week, attorney Matthew J. Piers, together with the Civil Rights Corps in Washington, D.C., filed suit against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and several judges who oversee the bail system. The suit contended the Cook County bail system was unconstitutional, violating the constitutional rights of the two poor defendants who were the named plaintiffs. That lawsuit was dismissed June 27 by Cook County Circuit Judge Celia G. Gamrath, who ruled that the relief requested by the two prisoners was beyond her authority to grant.

The county board president, Toni Preckwinkle; the state’s attorney, Kim Foxx; the county public defender, Amy Campanelli; and the sheriff, Dart, all had urged reform of the system.

Late last July, former U.S. attorney Eric Holder completed a study on behalf of the county’s public defender that concluded the Cook County bail system was “irrational, unjust, costly, and disproportionately affects minority communities.” Soon afterward, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans enacted a sweeping rules change that required bond court judges, upon finding that a suspect does not pose a danger to the community, ensure that whatever bail they set is not beyond the means of the defendant to pay.

The rules change does not go as far as some jurisdictions that have abolished cash bail altogether. Washington, D.C., the model for such reforms, has an extensive pretrial services program to ensure that suspects released pretrial are receiving adequate supervision and show up for court.

Piers, co-counsel on the recently dismissed lawsuit, has applauded the new Cook County rule. But he has expressed concern that a local rule could be abolished in the future, and does not apply to other Illinois counties that still require cash bail in many cases.

Illinois judges set bail on the basis of a series of considerations adopted in state law. The fear for judges is the risk of releasing a suspect who then commits some form of mayhem, or never shows up for court.

The lawyers’ letter to the rules committee states, “studies have repeatedly shown that alternatives to cash bond can be equally effective at ensuring a defendant’s appearance in court, without the negative consequences imposed by a wealth-based system.”