• Alex Nitkin
    JAN 15, 2021

    Cook County leaders revel in elimination of cash bail, see path to further shrinking jail population

    Cook County leaders revel in elimination of cash bail, see path to further shrinking jail population 

    The leaders in charge of Cook County’s multibillion-dollar jail and courts system praised state lawmakers’ vote this week to phase out the use of cash bail, saying the new law will push forward bail reform efforts they have already pursued for years. 

    Prohibiting judges from assigning money bond starting in 2023 was a key plank of the sweeping criminal justice reform package approved by the General Assembly on Wednesday. The bill (HB3653), which Gov. JB Pritzker has indicated he will sign, also ends the practice of “prison gerrymandering” and includes a host of measures aimed at reining in police abuses. 

    Related: Black Caucus notches wins on education, criminal justice as health care proposals fall short in lame duck session 

    Although the package has been panned by Republicans and law enforcement groups, Cook County leaders and criminal justice reform advocates said this week that the measure could accelerate the county’s long-term project of shrinking its jail population and deflecting people away from detention. 

    Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wrote in a statement Wednesday that the approved legislative package is “a great achievement and will work to undo the racial and economic inequity that has been a part of our criminal justice system for too long. 

    Bond reform has been a priority of my administration and for years we have demonstrated how bond courts don’t need to connect liberty to wealth,” Preckwinkle wrote. “The passage of these bills is the culmination of years of work by advocates and residents of communities throughout our state who are deeply affected by crime and policing. 

    Preckwinkle often touts the sliding population of the Cook County Jail, from more than 10,000 detainees when she became president in 2011 to just over 5,000 this year, as a hallmark of her legacy. 

    Ending cash bail will likely push that trend further, according to Era Laudermilk, deputy of legislative affairs in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. Public Defender Amy Campanelli, a longtime advocate for ending cash bail, also celebrated the bill’s passage on Wednesday.

    “We’ve gotten to a place where we have clients in the jail who are there simply because they don’t have $1,000 or less to go home, and that’s unacceptable,” Laudermilk told The Daily Line Thursday. “This is going to ensure that our clients are entitled to release on their own recognizance, and the idea of putting them in jail for a couple hundred dollars will be no more.” 

    Laudermilk estimated that nearly 1,500 defendants are in the jail simply because they cannot afford to bond their way out. 

    One provision of the 764-page bill deems that judges may only keep a defendant who is awaiting trial locked in jail if that person “poses a specific, real and present threat to a person, or has a high likelihood of willful flight.” 

    “Those are very intentional words,” Laudermilk said. “That is a game change for how our judges will be able to preside over these bail hearings.”  

    Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx also lauded the legislation on Wednesday, writing on her official Facebook page that eliminating cash bail “ends the practice of detaining non-violent offenders simply because they are poor while also preventing violent offenders from being released because they can afford bail.” 

    And county Chief Judge Timothy Evans wrote in a press release Wednesday that he has “been supporting the end of money bail for a long time,” adding that he “looks forward to seeing Cook County’s success in bail reform expanded and replicated throughout the state of Illinois, and eventually the nation. 

    Evans said the elimination of cash bail would amplify the impact of a 2017 order (18.8A) he signed advising judges to rein in their use of cash bail, and to keep bail assignments within the range defendants could afford to pay. His press release pointed to a study released in November by researchers at Loyola University in Chicago estimateing that the order netted more than $13 million in savings for defendants. 

    Related: Activists praise bond reform 2 years later, but says changes don’t go far enough 

    “Judges have used fewer money bonds since [Evans’] general order went into effect, and more people have been able to pay them…and that is why we have seen fewer people in the jail,” said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund and a longtime advocate for ending cash bail. 

    However, the 2017 order was still bound by existing state law, putting a limit on how far it could go toward freeing defendants who could not afford bail, Grace said. 

    “Judges have continued to set money bonds at amounts people cannot afford to pay, resulting in their detention,” she said. “And even the question of how much someone can afford to pay is very difficult to answer.” 

    The county’s bond reform efforts sparked a backlash from law enforcement groups who have blamed lenient judges for upticks in violent crime, including the Chicago Police Department, whose resistance in 2019 briefly reignited the rivalry between Preckwinkle and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

    Related: Lightfoot blasts lenient judges after deadly weekend: ‘This doesn’t make any sense to me’ 

    The Illinois Law Enforcement Coalition, which includes the union that represents rank-and-file Chicago police officers, released a statement Wednesday saying the approved legislative package is a “betrayal of the public trust that gives many more advantages to criminals than the police” and “allows criminals to run free while out on bail.” 

    However, a spokesperson for the Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart indicated support for the coming new law, writing in a statement Wednesday that Dart was the “first Sheriff in the nation to call for an end to cash bail” and “applauds any efforts that prevent those charged with low-level offenses – often the poor or mentally ill – from being incarcerated.” 

    “The jail should only be used for dangerous individuals who pose a threat to the health and safety of their communities, not for those too poor to afford bail,” the statement continued. 

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