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Violent crime, jail population drop in first year of bail reform: report

A fourth detainee at Cook County Jail died of coronavirus April 19, 2020.
Cook County Jail, 2700 S. California Ave. | Sun-Times file photo

The number of inmates at Cook County Jail dropped by more than 1,600 in the months following a mandate to set affordable bonds for criminal defendants, according to a report released Thursday by Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

Evans, in September 2017, appointed a new slate of bond court judges, renaming the half-dozen jurists the “Pre-Trial Division,” and putting in place new procedures to evaluate defendants’ criminal history and likelihood to commit more crimes if allowed to go free while awaiting trial.

Data from the first 15 months following the changes — from September 2017 to December 2018 —show that the jail population went down from 7,433 to 5,799. The data also shows that the average bond amount fell from $5,000 to $1,000, while the percentage of inmates picking up new charges while on bond dropped slightly, the report states. Violent crime in Chicago dropped 8% during same period, according to crime data reported to the FBI, the report states.

The percentage of defendants getting an “I-bond,” which allows them to go free without posting any cash, almost doubled, while 10 times as many defendants were held without bond — meaning no sum of cash could secure their release, the report states. Nearly 90% of defendants to go free on bond had not been charged with a new crime while free during the 15 months studied.

“This report shows that judges are respecting the rights of the accused by releasing eligible pretrial defendants from jail without increasing the threat to public safety,” Evans is quoted in a press release that accompanied the report. “Judges are also protecting our communities by deeming more pretrial defendants a danger and holding them in custody without bail.”

Cara Smith, policy director for Sheriff Tom Dart, praised “steps toward reform,” but said the sheriff remains concerned that defendants charged in weapons cases and violent crimes have been placed in increasing numbers on electronic monitoring. The ankle-mounted devices “ping” sheriff’s officials if a defendant leaves their home outside of proscribed hours while on bond, but they are not capable of tracking the location of the wearer.

“We continue to have serious concerns about the impact these reforms are having on the EM program, which was designed for property crime and non-violent defendants,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said the report contained encouraging statistics, but that there still are thousands of people in the jail who pose little threat to public safety but languish behind bars because they can’t pull together a few thousand, or even a few hundred dollars for bond money. News stories about offenders who commit crimes while on bond, the statistics show, are an exception.

“It’s essential that we look at the global picture. We need to look at the numbers across the board over a longer period of time, not just a couple of cases,” Grace said.