People who are found not guilty of crimes shouldn’t have to pay a dime in penalty. But they do in many ways, of course, such as having to pay for lawyers.
One of the more peculiar undeserved punishments is that, under a longstanding rule, the Cook County courts — like all Illinois courts — can skim off a percentage of the bail money people have posted while awaiting a trial, even from defendants later found not guilty.
Because the skim for “bail bond costs” is a percentage, people who post the highest bail amounts get hit hardest.” So, for example, someone who posts the required 10 percent of bail set at $10,000 loses $100, but someone who posts 10 percent of $50,000 loses $500. It is patently unfair, and we urge the state Legislature to approve a bipartisan bill now before it that would cap at $100 the amount of money Cook County can keep.
Bail is intended to ensure defendants return to court without having to be held in jail. They lose the money they put up it if they skip out. But the accused is supposed to get the money back if he or she complies with the provisions of the bail or is not convicted.
Really, if you’re found not guilty or the criminal charges are dropped, it is absurd that you might lose even that $100. The cost should be borne by county taxpayers as a whole. It is fundamentally un-American to make somebody pay for being arrested and then freed.
The government’s cut of bail money isn’t pocket change. In 2013, the clerk of the circuit court took in $5.6 million. It’s not clear how much that revenue would decrease if a $100 cap were imposed, but an alternative must be found. Skimming bail money hits African-Americans and Latinos particularly hard, as they make up 86 percent of the Cook County jail population, according to Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, who is pushing the reform.
The current system may also have the unintended consequence of compelling some people — even innocent people — to await trial in jail, not wanting to lose the skim on their bail.
The state law governing bail was enacted in the 1960s, but according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data, bail amounts have risen significantly since then. The average increase between 1992 and 2006 alone was more than $30,000.
Higher bail amounts increase the unfairness in the system. It’s time to wring that unfairness out.