Seeking to increase momentum to abolish the cash-for-bond structure
ingrained in the Illinois’ criminal justice system, a group of experts and elected officials gathered Wednesday morning at a Cook County Board hearing to explain why the process, in their view, is inherently flawed.

“If a man [charged with a crime] leaves us $50,000 on the way home, that person is not transformed into a risk-free, safe person — not in the slightest, and any fourth grader knows that,” said District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Truman Morrison.

Morrison said in his hometown, paying money to avoid pre-trial detention has been abolished.

“We release 25 percent of the people by just saying ‘Sign your name. Here’s your court date. Don’t break the law. Please come back on that date. Have a nice life.’ And they leave. No supervision whatsoever,” Morrison said.

About 90 percent of defendants in Washington D.C. do not go to jail and the other 10 percent — deemed too risky for release — are held on “preventive detention.”

“Your wealth gets you nothing,” Morrison said. “Rich or poor, if too risky, you’re in jail ’til trial.”

And about 90 percent of people show up their next court date — the purpose of a bond in the first place — and do not commit a crime in the interim, resulting in a half-full jail.
The difference: judges in Washington DC emphasize a risk-assessment screening by court staff to decide who is a flight risk or too dangerous to release, Morrison said.

Cash bonds are a faulty default setting for judges all over the country for a simple reason: that’s the way it’s always been done, he said. But’s it’s not fair.

“To a person, there is not a woman or man wearing a robe in the DC who would ever dream of returning to the dark, dysfunctional days of deciding personal freedom by dollar bills,” he said.

Amy P. Campanelli, who as Public Defender for Cook County oversees the process for providing counsel to those who can’t afford an attorney, said at a news conference before the county board hearing that a new risk assessment tool was put in place for county judges to use about a year ago.

“But as long as we have cash bond, the risk assessment is not being looked at,” she said.

Even low bonds for misdemeanors are impossible for most of her clients to afford, so they go to jail. And even repeat offenders, she said, should be looked at by a judge on a case-by-case basis, she said.

“Offering supervision, job help, treatment, text reminders, they assure court attendance . . . We need to change the culture of the way we have been doing this for decades,” she said.

That goal seems more possible after Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart this week called for abolishing the state’s cash-bond system, saying it’s unfair to low-level defendants who can’t afford to pay and puts society in danger when defendants with violent backgrounds have the money to post bail and are freed until trial.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also backs reform. So does Kim Foxx, recently elected to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

The system is in “desperate need of reform,” Foxx said Wednesday during a brief phone chat. It’s “being exploited to the degree that it’s not so much about people’s threat to safety, but their ability to pay.”

And it disproportionately effects minorities, she said.

But doing away with the system would require a change to Illinois’ bail statute — a daunting political challenge.

A spokesman for Gov. Bruce Rauner said the governor agrees the bond system needs reform, and he’s looking at ways to do that.

Under current state law, cash bail is to ensure a defendant will show up for court, doesn’t pose a danger to the community and will comply with the conditions of bond. Judges should set bail only when they determine that no other conditions of release will meet those goals.

In order to force the issue, Chicago attorney Matt Piers, working with a group of civil rights litigators, filed suit on behalf on behalf of Cook County jail inmates; the lawsuit contends judges routinely violate constitutional due process rights by setting high bonds that ensure poor defendants are unable to pay.

“Every major panel of experts, scholars, judges, prosecutors, the Department of Justice, the American Bar Association, who’s actually studied this issue has concluded that the use of money to decide who is free and who is caged is an absurdity,” said Alec Karakatsa, a civil rights attorney who worked with Piers on the suit.

Campanelli said that Cook County Judges — some elected, others appointed — already have discretion to stop issuing cash bonds. But she did not hesitate when asked if elected judges hesitate to release defendants without bond due to fears they might commit another crime.

“What I have told [Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans] and other judges at several panels is that it is not the judge’s fault ever if someone gets released on bond using the risk assessment tool — using the factors that are appropriate to determine if someone is a risk — if that person goes out and commits another crime.”

“No one has a crystal ball, right?”