Champaign County judge gave high bonds after weekend of unrest

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The presiding judge in Champaign County set cash bonds for every one of the 26 people charged after unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd late last month.

The average bond set by Judge Thomas Difanis for those arrested on May 31 was $25,000, meaning defendants had to pay $2,500 to get out of jail. Most of those arrested were charged with burglary, though other charges included mob action, assault of a police officer, and criminal damage to property. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz personally appeared in bond court on June 2 and pushed for cash bonds for every person charged.

The high cash bonds were in stark contrast to bonds typically set for burglary in Champaign County, according to court watchers there, and to those set by judges in Cook County following the protests in Chicago, Injustice Watch found.

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An Injustice Watch analysis of bond court in Cook County on June 1 and 2 shows that bonds for property crimes in the aftermath of protests were generally much lower than in Champaign County. Cook County prosecutors also seemed to charge more people with theft and trespassing, which carry lower penalties than burglary, based on the cases Injustice Watch observed in bond court.

Wendy Graves, who did court watching in Champaign County bond court over the course of 10 months in 2018, told Injustice Watch that more than half of the people that she had seen charged with burglary over that period received recognizance bonds, which do not require payment to get out of jail.

“This was violence, property damage and burglary on a level we have not had in this community,” Rietz said in an email to Injustice Watch.

“Given the decision making of these individuals,” she added, “cash bond was appropriate.”

Judge Difanis did not respond to a request for comment.

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State Rep. Carol Ammons (D-103rd), whose district includes most of Champaign and Urbana, said she did not condone the property crime but was disappointed at Rietz’s “unjust leadership.”

“If she’s going to ‘throw the book’ at people for property damage, I would hope that she is also prosecuting those who have consistently committed hate crimes, police violence, and other egregious acts against people of color,” Ammons said in an email. “She seems to eagerly go after our Black and Brown communities while practicing measured discernment and restraint with our White communities.”

25 of the 26 people arrested were Black, according to the Champaign County Bailout Coalition, in a county that is nearly two-thirds white.

Shantee Mason-Tanzie was arrested on May 31 outside of a Circle K convenience store north of downtown Champaign. The nurse and mother of seven said she, her boyfriend and another friend saw that the store had been broken into and went inside to check it out, but that she didn’t steal anything. But prosecutors charged her and most of the others arrested that night with burglary, a class 2 felony.

“I guess they wanted to make an example out of us,” she said.

Mason-Tanzie was held for two nights in a jail in Champaign with 10 other women who were arrested, she said. On the second night, Mason-Tanzie, who has high blood pressure, said she had a panic attack and had trouble breathing. The next day Judge Difanis gave her a $5,000 bond, the lowest of anyone arrested that day.

The arrest and cash bond disrupted her life in still-unfolding ways. Her car was impounded and the $500 she had to pay for bail has made it harder to make ends meet. She said she has had trouble getting job assignments as a traveling nurse after the local newspaper published her name, address and other identifying information. And someone found her phone number and sent her threatening text messages, she said.

“It’s scary,” she said. “It’s very scary.”

Ten of the people arrested, including Mason-Tanzie, posted bail with the help of family and friends. The Champaign County Bailout Coalition, which has received increased donations during the ongoing national protests against police brutality, paid $46,000 to get the rest of those arrested out of the jail.

Chibundo Egwuatu, a volunteer with the Bailout Coalition, said the across-the-board cash bonds were an abuse of the system. Cash bond is supposed to ensure that defendants show up to court. It shouldn’t be used as a punishment against people who are presumed innocent, she said.

“If he doesn’t want to assign bail to someone, he has the mandated government power to do that,” she said. “So he’s putting these very young people in jail, and they don’t have two grand or five grand to spend.”

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State Rep. Ammons, who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus, said the whole system of cash bail is racist.

“You are only ‘innocent until proven guilty’ if you can afford bail,” she said. “If we zoom out a bit more and consider the historical context of it, we start to find the deeply racist roots in these policies.”

Activists said they believed that Difanis and Rietz were reacting to racialized hysteria over alleged looting in the mostly white county.

Police said in public statements that the alleged burglaries began at a mall in Champaign and continued throughout the day, allegedly encouraged by a Facebook post in which a local man called for a riot in response to systemic racial inequality and George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Activist Barbara Kessel told Injustice Watch that news coverage of the events caused rumors to circulate in the whiter, rural parts of the county that Black people from Urbana and Champaign were traveling around and looting throughout the county.

Kessel, who is white, said she was surprised to hear from a friend in a nearby town who thought that looters were coming to steal things there.

“There’s nothing to loot,” she told Injustice Watch. “There’s no shopping there.”

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