For years, jails have been misused as a kind of storage dump for people who are mentally ill or accused of only minor crimes but too poor to make bail.
For those types of cases, Cook County’s bail reform measures of 2017 have been a resounding success, creating a template for statewide bail reform enacted by the Legislature earlier this year, which should also prove to be a success. A Loyola University Chicago study released in November found that twice as many people were released without having to post bail as would have been expected without bail reform. If you look at Cook County Jail now, its occupants are mostly those charged with murder or other serious offenses.
But now, even longtime advocates of bail reform are worried that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction when it comes to gun crimes. They question why people who, by any common-sense standard, are a danger to the community are being released, sometimes on electronic monitoring.
Count us among those who are worried.
Case in point is Ruben Roman, the 21-year-old man who allegedly started the chain of events that led to the police-shooting death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo on March 29. Twenty-one days after Toledo was killed, Roman was freed from jail on electronic monitoring.
Roman was charged with reckless discharge of a firearm, unlawful use of a weapon, child endangerment and violating probation. On the basis of those charges, it is unlikely Judge Susana Ortiz could have ordered Roman held without bail, though we and many others would argue that Roman appears to be a clear and genuine threat to the community.
Roman is not charged with any crime, such as murder or aggravated sex assault, that clearly would have allowed Ortiz to deny him bail. Moreover, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans has instructed judges to find a way to grant affordable bail. We don’t know what Roman’s pretrial services report revealed about the severity of his criminal background.
Roman and Toledo allegedly were caught on video and audio recordings shooting at moving cars in Little Village. After the police, responding to a ShotSpotter alert, arrived on the scene, the pair attempted to flee. Toledo was fatally shot a split second after apparently tossing away a gun and raising his hands, all in one motion. Roman reportedly was tackled by police and gunpowder residue was found on his gloves.
After an incident back in 2019, Roman was charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, resisting arrest and other charges. Prosecutors dropped most of the charges in exchange for a guilty plea to a single count of unlawful use of a weapon, however, and Roman was sentenced to probation.
Roman, who was arrested in Maywood in early April, allegedly violated the terms of that probation. The Chicago Community Bond fund paid his $15,000 bail in the Adam Toledo case, along with a bail of $25,000 for the 2019 case.
Electronic monitoring has been an effective way to keep drug offenders out of jail while they are awaiting trial. If they break the rules and leave home to buy or sell drugs, the danger to society is not great.
But repeat gun offenders are another matter. If they break the rules and leave home and commit further gun crimes, the danger to us all is obviously great. It’s also unnerving to people in a neighborhood to see that somebody who has been arrested for a serious gun crime is right back on the street. Can anybody point to a single study that shows that repeat gun offenders released from jail do not pose a serious danger?
Cook County needs to go back to the drawing board on gun offenses. The county should keep most of its recent bail reforms but rewrite the rules for gun crimes. That will require changes in the law. It also will require guidelines for judges and prosecutors to make better distinctions between serious and minor gun crimes. The Illinois Legislature set the effective date for its bail reform in 2023 to ensure it gets it right.
About 5,700 people are now being held in Cook County Jail. The majority of them are criminal suspects awaiting trial who have been denied bail. About 80% of those in the jail are charged with murder or another very serious offense. About 20% are waiting to be transferred elsewhere, such as to a state prison. Some face charges that don’t appear to be significant but they have serious criminal backgrounds.
Where Cook County has gotten it wrong, in our view, has been in allowing more people charged with murder or serious gun crimes to be released on electronic monitoring. At this very moment, 93 people charged with murder are on home monitoring.
The quickest way to undermine popular support for efforts to reduce the jail’s population, by eliminating cash bail and other means, is to release on electronic monitoring people who should remain right where they are — behind bars.
Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.