Court watchers fill holes in bond data during COVID jail outbreak

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Editor’s note (May 21): This story has been updated to clarify the Chicago Community Bond Fund’s role in the Coalition to End Money Bond’s court-watching efforts.

As the coronavirus has spread inside the Cook County Jail, the pandemic has exposed a lack of data about what happens in bond court, where decisions are made about pretrial incarceration.

It has also inspired several groups of stakeholders to begin court-watching efforts to fill that information gap.

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“This seems to point to a hole in data collection out there in the system,” said Don Stemen, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago, who is collecting data on emergency bond court hearings at the request of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. “Even the stakeholders in the system can’t access this information easily through the court case management system or their own case management systems, which is problematic.”

The Cook County Public Defender’s Office is collecting its own data from bond review hearings, at the request of the mayor and county board president, and a coalition of nonprofit groups that advocate for the end of money bond also began a court-watching initiative this week.

“The goal is to help ensure that we are not sending people potentially to die inside the Cook County Jail simply because they cannot afford to pay a money bond,” said Matt McLoughlin, director of programs for the Chicago Community Bond Fund, one of the member groups of the Coalition to End Money Bond. The coalition has trained more than 80 volunteers who will be watching every bond hearing for at least the next three weeks.

The court-watching efforts now underway highlight the fact that there is no agency or court stakeholder that regularly collects data about the hearings to decide whether to detain someone before trial.

Court watching is a long-standing practice, in part because of the lack of transparency in the criminal justice system, said Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate professor of sociology at Brown University. Her book about the Cook County Criminal Court, “Crook County,” relied in large part on her own observations from watching court hearings.

“It gives a level of oversight and accountability that judges and prosecutors resist,” she said.

According to the data collected by the public defender’s office, prosecutors have rejected more than 80 percent of the bond reduction motions brought by public defenders since the pandemic began in late March. The state’s attorney’s office has rejected those figures and is collecting its own data through its partnership with Loyola.

A spokeswoman from the state’s attorney’s office said the partnership with Loyola is part of the office’s “commitment to using data to inform our work and drive policy.”

One of the challenges of court watching is the fast-moving pace of bond hearings. The Loyola students are observing hearings in groups of three to try to ensure they capture all of the information, but mistakes are inevitable, Stemen said.

“There’s a lot of missing data, names misspelled,” he said. “Rarely do they say the case number, they don’t always mention things like the offenses people are being held on.”

Bond decisions have taken on more significance due to the coronavirus pandemic. At least 542 detainees at the jail have tested positive for the virus over the past two months. Seven detainees and three sheriff’s office employees have died.

The Illinois Supreme Court has also suspended the right to a speedy trial, meaning anyone who is denied bond or cannot pay it is likely to spend longer in jail awaiting trial.

Additionally, the county has run out of electronic monitoring devices, so defendants assigned to pre-trial electronic monitoring, a decision that is also made in bond court, are still being held in the jail until a device becomes available.

While the jail population has declined about 27 percent since the coronavirus outbreak, the population has plateaued since the start of May and people are still regularly admitted to the jail.

“We know this pandemic isn’t going anywhere,” McLoughlin said. “The number in reality should still be decreasing.”

This isn’t the first time that the Coalition to End Money Bond has undertaken court watching to shed light on the use of money bond in Cook County. The findings from their first court-watching effort, in 2017, helped document the impact of bond reform efforts by Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

Court watching has the potential to influence judicial behavior, or at least to inform judges about the implications of their decisions, Van Cleve said. Judges should be aware that the choice to incarcerate someone pretrial – and potentially expose them to the coronavirus – has public health ramifications, Van Cleve said.

“They’re making decisions that will impact public health,” she said. “If you’re charged with possession [of a controlled substance], is that a crime that people should die for?”