Cook County’s top judge defends bond reform, juvenile courts

Chief Judge Timothy Evans addressed a Union League Club audience as 16-year-old suspect— who had been on probation— was ordered held without bond, charged in the murder of 8-year-old Melissa Ortega.

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Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans tapped a law firm a year ago to investigate possible fraud involving his office’s employees getting federal Paycheck Protection Program loans but won’t discuss what it’s found.

Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans speaks during a luncheon at the Union League Club of Chicago in the Loop on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 27, 2022, where he discussed the criminal justice system, including electronic monitoring and possible solutions to crime.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

Chief Judge Timothy Evans on Thursday defended his fellow judges against claims lenient bond policies and light sentences are contributing to a two-year surge in violence.

Evans’ hour-long speech to an audience of about 100 at the Union League Club began around the same time as the bond hearing for two men charged in the murder of 8-year-old Melissa Ortega, whose slaying Saturday in Little Village has shocked Chicago residents who have seen the city tally more than 1,500 murders since 2020.

Evans, who in 2017 revamped the county’s bond court system with a slate of new judges and a mandate to send fewer defendants to await trial in the County Jail, defended both those changes and the county’s juvenile courts.

Asked if the 16-year-old charged as the gunman in Ortega’s shooting should have been locked up based on three prior arrests for carjacking rather than on “intensive juvenile probation,” Evans declined to comment on a pending case but defended the juvenile courts and the system of evaluations, mentors and decisions by judges.

“That person is 16. The court’s purpose in dealing with juveniles is to try to rehabilitate juveniles,” Evans said, adding later, “Our job as a court is, yes, to keep the public safe, as safe as we can, but to try to rehabilitate that juvenile, to stop him or her from doing whatever the negative thing is.”

Evans’ prepared remarks, which were followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session with reporters, marked the chief judge’s first in-person commentary on the courts after weeks of sparring in the press with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has said soaring violence in the city has been spurred in part by defendants who have been released on bond.

Lightfoot earlier this month called on Evans to issue a moratorium on the use of electronic monitoring for defendants charged for a list of violent crimes, citing statistics that Evans said were inaccurate or lacked detail.

Evans cited statistics that 95% of Cook County defendants who were free on bond over the last four years did not pick up another charge for a violent crime. Evans noted that no defendant charged with murder or attempted murder has been allowed bond in Cook County since October, though he has not issued any directive mandating stricter bond decisions.

“I would always emphasize that we have the judges follow the law, and I hope that they were following the law along,” he said. “There was no announcement from me saying ‘Don’t put anybody on electronic monitoring’ or anything like that.”

Evans five years ago assigned new judges to bond court and has emphasized that bond amounts should be made affordable for all but the most serious crimes and that electronic monitoring be used more frequently.

While crime dipped in 2018 and 2019, Chicago and nearly all U.S. cities saw massive spikes in crime over the last two years. Changes to state law that take effect in 2023 will eliminate cash bond statewide, meaning defendants will only be jailed if they pose a threat to the public or are likely to flee.

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