Bond court system under attack in civil rights lawsuit

SHARE Bond court system under attack in civil rights lawsuit

Detainees at Cook County Jail wait to be processed in 2014. Sun-Times file

State lawyers trying to knock down a lawsuit that calls for sweeping reform to Cook County’s bond court system on Monday offered plenty of reasons why the case should be thrown out.

Chancery Judge Celia Gamrath doesn’t have the authority to overrule her fellow judges’ bond court decisions, en masse.

And the two indigent jail inmates who filed the case both have been released, they argued.

The Cook County courts in recent months have taken tentative stabs at bond reform on their own.

“You didn’t hear them saying the system was fair,” said Matthew Piers, the attorney leading the legal team calling for reform, as he stood outside the courtroom.

The lawsuit, filed last year, has challenged the age-old practice of holding defendants behind bars unless they post cash bond, claiming the system often leaves poor defendants behind bars on minor charges for want of a few hundred dollars.

Meanwhile, defendants accused of more serious crimes might go free so long as can front thousands of dollars.

Gamrath did not immediately rule on whether the case can move forward, and did not set a date for another hearing.

Piers’ argument took up most of the three-hour hearing, hammering the point that state law says that cash bond is intended only as a way to ensure that a defendant returns for future court dates, not to hold someone who hasn’t been convicted behind bars.

Monday, Piers said, more than 300 people were stuck at the Cook County jail because they couldn’t put up $1,000 or less for bond, and the average bond amount topping $70,000.

The county’s bond system has been under attack from powerful political figures, with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart— who runs the jail— calling for an end to cash bail entirely and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx backing reform as well.

The state legislature this year passed a minor tweak that mandates judges review defendants’ ability to pay, and Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans this summer issued an order mandating bond court judges to make similar considerations.

But those moves do nothing to force judges to give defendants bond amounts they can afford, Piers said. Evans’ doesn’t have the authority to compel other judges to do what he says, and the new laws basically repeat laws already on the books.

After the hearing, Piers said he expects there would be an appeal of Gamrath’s ruling, whichever side comes out the winner.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.

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