Tuesday’s field trip to bond court was scheduled long ago and, to be honest, I expected Toni Preckwinkle to cancel, assuming that her spare time is now taken up by this bothersome running-for-mayor business.
I had underestimated her, as many do.
“Today is all about pre-trial services,” said the Cook County Board president as her Chevy Suburban headed toward 26th and California.
I put on my pouty reporter face. Nothing about the three-ring circus primary? Aww…
“I have talking points…” she replied, glancing down at a piece of paper. “In September of 2017, Chief Judge Evans provided a general order to judges in bond court, that the default position should be I-bonds. Two thirds of the people, when we started, got cash bonds and one-third got either electronic monitoring or I-bonds. Now it is the reverse. … But we still have a very good compliance rate; about 89 percent of felony defendants released as of March 31 have appeared for all court dates.”
Or in English: Last year, most of those arrested had to put up money to get out of jail (a D-bond, for example, requires posting 10 percent of the bail amount). Now most either wear an electronic bracelet, which costs less than half of what being kept in jail does, or are trusted to return (that’s an I-bond) because if they don’t they’ll be in even more trouble.
Fixing bond court has been a passion of Preckwinkle’s — she took me there in 2011, her first year as president. Prisoners were being held, not due to the severity of their crimes, but the lightness of their pocketbooks.
“Most people in jail are guilty of being poor,” Preckwinkle said then. This was both unfair to them and expensive to Cook County. Plus, the system was antiquated. “She’s using carbon paper!” Preckwinkle had whispered, pointing to a clerk, aghast.
This week, we spent an hour watching Associate Judge Mary C. Marubio preside over a steady stream of arrestees, beginning with a traffic stop that uncovered a hidden .45 in a car trunk of a felon.
Otherwise, it was mostly the usual grim litany of drugs — heroin, Ecstasy, cocaine — and the petty theft that supports drug habits.
Every person we saw got out. And all but one were black and Hispanic, a fact that didn’t register with me until the lone white defendant was led in.
“A parade of black and brown persons,” said Preckwinkle. “Though for the most part Cook County is white.”
The courtroom was nicer, having undergone a $500,000 modernization.
“The judge sits up a little more and is in more view for defendant families,” said Delrice Adams, executive director of the Justice Advisory Council, who went along with us. “People in the galley can hear exactly what the state’s attorney and the public defender are saying — they’re miked, so you can hear them.”
In theory. As it turned out, the microphones weren’t in place. And watching Preckwinkle trying to sort it out, the heart broke a little. This is still county government; outmoded practices remain. After bond is set, the clerk takes a red marker and draws a big I or D on the back of the prisoner’s hand, to indicate what type of bond they’ve been given. And they sometimes still use carbon paper.
Maybe we should blame Willie Wilson for that, now that the businessman-turned-mayoral candidate is trying to take responsibility for bond court. Wilson held a press conference, also Tuesday, claiming he made the changes Preckwinkle has pursued for years. He called her a “liar” who is “arrogantly stealing credit” from him. File that under “moxie” — Preckwinkle was pushing for bond court reform when Wilson was pushing for medical supply factories in China.
In the car on the way back, Preckwinkle reprised what she has said all along.
“We have a public health crisis of substance abuse and we’re dealing with it through the criminal justice system,” she said. The system is filled with people of color due to “hyper-policing of black and brown communities. Eight to 10 percent of every racial group uses drugs, it’s just that black and brown people end up in the criminal justice system.”
In the past, a candidate with Preckwinkle’s track record would scare off the lightweights. Maybe that’s coming. Until then, Wilson’s wild claim is a reminder that seeing a man bluster his way into the White House has had a general unhinging effect. It would be funny, if we didn’t have these serious, pervasive problems, problems that are hard enough to fix if you care a lot and know what you’re doing.