Sheriff’s warning over bail release sparks response from Cook County officials

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart warned County Board President Toni Preckwinkle that the way bail reforms are being enacted risks a dangerous situation. But Preckwinkle responded that Dart's own numbers do not support that conclusion.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has touched off a controversy by writing that he feared the bail reforms that took place last September are endangering the public by letting suspects arrested on gun charges go home to await trial on electronic monitoring.

Dart first announced his position last week in a letter to Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle, saying his office has identified an “alarming new pattern” in which suspects arrested on gun charges are being assigned electronic monitoring. “I have determined that I am neither satisfied nor convinced” that electronic monitoring “offers adequate protections” to the public, Dart wrote.

On Monday, his chief policy officer, Cara Smith, said in an interview that her office had begun conducting its own review of each case in which electronic monitoring is ordered to ensure the public is not endangered. Smith said that she had reviewed several gun cases from over the weekend in which “we are uncomfortable” with the decision to order the suspects to be confined to their homes on electronic monitoring awaiting trial.

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She said the office would be reporting its objections to each case.

Meanwhile, other Cook County officials took sharp exception to the concern voiced by Dart. Preckwinkle wrote Dart a response letter on Monday that “it appears that your own data does not support the narrative you have shared with the broader public.” She noted that Dart’s own study showed that only 2.5 percent were rebooked for a felony gun charge.

“According to your own data, most defendants charged with a gun offense do not reoffend while waiting for trial,” Preckwinkle noted.

Her view was echoed by Pat Milhizer, spokesman for Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, who provided an email statement stating that nine of every 10 defendants released from custody have remained free of new charges while awaiting trial.

Milhizer added that electronic monitoring is a significant restriction – suspects cannot leave their homes without setting off an alarm that leads to new felony charges.

The dispute comes after officials for years pushed to ease the use of the traditional Cook County bail system that left hundreds of suspects locked in the Cook County jail for an extended time awaiting trial simply because they were poor and could not post bail. The concerns brought agreement from officials concerned over the costs of confinement, the overcrowding of the jails, and the impact on nonviolent suspects held unnecessarily in custody.

In late 2016, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of prisoners detained pretrial contending the bail system was unconstitutional because whether suspects were held or released depended upon their wealth. That case is one of several suits filed nationwide, part of a reform movement on bail that is taking place in urban cities across the country. Last week a federal appellate court upheld key portions of a similar lawsuit in Harris County, TX.

Smith, of the sheriff’s office, said in the interview that the release of suspects arrested on gun charges was of particular concern. “These offenders are from the most violent communities in the city,” she said. While Dart has supported bail reform, Smith added, “The pendulum has unmistakably swung too far.” When that happens, she said, “all it takes is one incident to risk all the progress that is being made.”

That characterization was rejected by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which issued a statement calling Dart’s concerns “unsubstantiated claims to imaginary threats to public safety.” The bond fund statement stated electronic monitoring is a “serious restriction on people’s liberty” that deprives them of sitting on their porches, carrying out their garbage, going grocery shopping or taking their children to school.

Milhizer noted that while Dart was studying gun cases, “they are gun cases in which nobody was shot or killed. That means the charge is not an inherently violent charge.”