Class-action suit seeks reform to ‘unjust’ jail bond system

SHARE Class-action suit seeks reform to ‘unjust’ jail bond system

The Cook County Jail, shown in September 2013. | Sun-Times files

A class-action lawsuit has been filed by two men seeking reform to a justice system in Cook County that they say keeps minorities unfairly jailed before trial due to unreasonably high bond amounts set by criminal division judges.

The suit filed Friday in Cook County Circuit Court was brought by Zachary Robinson and Michael Lewis, black men who describe themselves as indigent. Robinson has been held at the Cook County Jail on a $10,000 bond since December 2015 for a theft arrest, and Lewis was jailed on Oct. 3 for retail theft, with bond set at $50,000.

Detainees must pay a 10-percent deposit to be released ahead of their trials.

Zachary Robinson (left) and Michael Lewis | Cook County sheriff’s office photos

Zachary Robinson (left) and Michael Lewis | Cook County sheriff’s office photos

They say their bond amounts were set “without a meaningful inquiry into the person’s ability to pay” and are representative of many other jail detainees — usually people of color — who don’t pose a threat to the community and are only in custody because they don’t have the money.

“No alternative is provided for those arrestees who are unable to pay for the amount ordered for their release from custody even though they are eligible for pretrial release,” the suit says. Those alternatives should include more releases on electronic monitoring as well as drug and mental health programs, the suit said.

Listed as defendants are judges LeRoy Martin Jr., E. Kenneth Wright Jr., Peggy Chiampas, Sandra G. Ramos and Adam Bourgeois Jr. A circuit court representative could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The suit also names Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who manages the jail. Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the sheriff’s office, said she expects Dart to be dismissed from the suit because they “have no choice but to accept people placed into our custody.” She agreed with the suit’s description of the bond system as “disgracefully unjust” and said she hopes the suit supports reforms the sheriff’s office has pushed to ease overcrowding at the jail at 26th Street and California.

“We’ve gotten very far away from the purpose and intent of our bail statute, which says that if your presence in the community is a risk, you can’t be released,” Smith said. “What we’ve instead done is operationalized our bond system in a way that has a crushing effect on the poor.”

Ryan Hanley | Chicago Police photo

Ryan Hanley | Chicago Police photo

Smith cited the example of Ryan Hanley, a detainee who died of a terminal illness on Monday, four months after he had been charged with felony theft for stealing less than $300 worth of baby formula from an Avondale neighborhood Jewel-Osco and couldn’t post $5,000 to bond out.

“For someone who is terminally ill and has no place to live, we’ve essentially put him in a no-bond status,” Smith said.

As of Friday, 271 people were being detained on bonds that required deposits of $1,000 or less, including several who would need just $100 to get out.

“The system was not intended to be oppressive,” Smith said.

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