Cook County’s top judge on Monday ordered his fellow judges who conduct bond court to release all defendants who pose no criminal danger to the public, veering sharply away from a cash-for-bond system that critics have long contended unfairly lands the poor behind bars.
“If they are not deemed a danger to any person or the public, my order states that they will receive a bail they can afford,” Chief Judge Evans told the Sun-Times.
“Defendants should not be sitting in jail awaiting trial simply because they lack the financial resources to secure their release,” Evans said, noting that judges will now be required to ask how much a defendant can afford to pay.
On the other end of the spectrum, Evans’ order also calls for judges to stop issuing cash bonds for dangerous people.
“The difference now is they can’t pay to get out if they’re a danger,” Evans said, adding that the order will take away the ability of street gangs to scrape together large amounts of money to free gangbangers.
Under the new order, which will kick in Sept. 18 for felonies and Jan.1 for misdemeanors, judges will be asked to rely heavily on Public Safety Assessments (PSA) in which they are presented with a summary of an offender’s criminal history in order to determine two things: an individual’s likelihood of committing more crimes and showing up to future court dates.
Illinois law currently demands judges take into account a defendant’s financial circumstance. Evans is taking it a step further by requiring defendants to be interviewed about their specific sources of income, which court employees will attempt to verify.
Asked about his confidence in the screening tool — which has been in place for two years — to weed out violent criminals, Evans said: “I am very confident about it.”
“I don’t want to try to pretend that any human using the system all of the sudden will not be human and will be perfect, but I am satisfied that we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.
Evans’ order comes after months of a steady drum beat calling for bond reform from a growing list of Cook County officials, including Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Public Defender Amy Campanelli and Sheriff Tom Dart.
It’s unclear how the order will effect the population of Cook County Jail, which over the last year has housed an average of about 7,600 inmates — all of whom can apply to have their bonds reviewed.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer.
Foxx issued a statement Monday that said, in part: “…Far too many people have been detained pretrial because they are poor and unable to post even minimal amounts for bond … I commend Judge Evans for continuing Cook County’s work towards meaningful bail reform.”
Lester Finkle, who serves as chief of staff to Campanelli, said the plan “recognizes a certain amount of dignity for the individual who’s brought before a judge.”
He added that assistant public defenders plan to present more witnesses and testimony at bail hearings.
Evans looked to Washington D.C., which abolished issuing cash bonds, as a road map to reform.