More people are home for Christmas in Chicago this year than any time in decades — more people who are facing criminal charges, that is.
The Cook County Jail this week held some 5,900 detainees, the lowest total at the jail in decades, and down more than 1,500 in just the last three months. The dramatic drop comes after years of efforts to reduce the population of the once-overcrowded jail complex at 26th Street and California Avenue, but the reason fewer people are in the jail lies next-door in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.
The fall in jail inmates corresponds to the appointment of a new slate of judges to handle the daily docket in bond court, and a mandate from Chief Judge Timothy Evans to limit the use of cash bond.
“This is almost entirely the result of judges following the law, which says that you cannot use money as a way to hold defendants in jail,” said Cara Smith, director of policy for Sheriff Tom Dart.
“The people that are dangerous are detained, and the people that are not dangerous need to be supported, in the community, by pre-trial services.”
Critics of cash bond — requiring criminal defendants to put up an amount of money or property that they would lose if they commit crimes or don’t show up for court — say the practice forces poor defendants to languish in jail even on minor charges, while wealthy defendants can go free while awaiting trial even on serious charges.
Since the new judges took the bench Sept. 18 — the start date Evans set for a judicial order mandating that defendants be granted bond amounts they can afford, unless they are deemed too dangerous to be released — the use of cash bail has plunged.
According to figures compiled by the Evans’ office, 60 percent of the 3,500 defendants who have come through the criminal court system since Sept. 18 have received individual recognizance bonds — I-bond, in courthouse vernacular. Cash bond has been assigned in only 20 percent of cases.
Those figures mark a near-reversal of the ratio from the six months before Evans’ order, when only 25 percent of defendants got I-bonds. Including the 13 percent of defendants who were put on electronic home monitoring, nearly two-thirds of defendants leave jail the day of their bond hearing.
And defendants ordered to pay bond now are more likely to be able to afford to post bail. According to a study by the Sheriff’s Justice Institute, the median bond amount had fallen to $8,5000 in the first two months of the new policy, down from $75,000 during a similar three-month span a year ago.
Judges also are ordering no bond in about six percent of cases, about six times the rate before Evans’ order — though in major cases their predecessor judges often set six- and seven-figure bond amounts that the average Cook County arrestee was never going to be able to pay.
Evans’ office said that 90 percent of defendants released on bond since his order took effect have reported for their next court dates, and 93 percent have not returned to court on new charges connected to crimes they are accused of committing while on bond.
The uniform support for bond reform by the head of the county’s court system, the sheriff and prosecutor, as well as County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, has persisted despite a 2016 surge in shootings and murders that has subsided only slightly this year. Critics — including lawyers for two Cook County Jail inmates who have filed a lawsuit challenging cash bail — have noted that Evans’ order simply restates state law requiring judges to set affordable bond amounts.
And the new team of judges still frequently set bond amounts higher than what defendants say they can afford, noted Sharlyn Grace, a policy analyst for the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, which has sent observers to monitor bond hearings.
“That is not how money bond is supposed to be used,” Grace said. “Judges are supposed to set bond at the minimum amount necessary to ensure someone returns to court, and if they are too dangerous to be in the community, then you set no bond. Money does not equal safety.”
Still, the city had been on pace to outstrip the number of shootings and murders in 2016 during the first quarter of this year, before starting to stem the number of shootings by late summer. By September, murders had fallen by 6 percent from 2016 levels. In the months since, the downward trend has continued, with 15 percent fewer killings.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who lobbied successfully for stiffer penalties for gun offenders this year, said the department has concerns that suspects caught with guns or arrested for shootings are making bond.
“CPD’s crime reduction strategy is predicated upon arresting the right people for the right reasons,” Johnson said in a statement, adding that he is opposed to mass incarceration. “However, CPD and the people of Chicago will not stand for a judicial system where individuals who engage in violence or recklessly carry and use illegal guns to harm our families are shown a revolving door.”