End of cash bail in Illinois showing early signs of success in reaching 'better and fairer system'

“I think we’ve come a very long way in the right direction,” Cook County Supervising Judge Charles Beach told the Sun-Times. “Things are working well.”

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Judge Charles Beach in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Chicago

Judge Charles Beach in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.

Paul Beaty/For the Sun-Times

Cook County Judge Charles Beach has presided over hundreds of pretrial hearings since Illinois became the first state in the nation to eliminate cash bail last fall.

Despite all the anguish over the Pretrial Fairness Act, Beach says he has been struck by how proceedings have significantly changed for the better in his courtroom.

“I think we’ve come a very long way in the right direction,” he said in an interview last week. “Things are working well.”

Under the old system of cash bail, Beach — a supervising judge in the pretrial division — was often tasked with setting a dollar figure a person would have to post before being released, a decision that could force a family to skip the rent to post a bond.

It was a process that could seem arbitrary, depending on the judge, the time of day and where in the state the hearing was held, even after Cook County implemented its own pretrial reforms in 2017.

“There’s a sense in the courtroom that taking money out of the equation has leveled the playing field,” Beach said.

A new normal

In the months that have followed, what was novel has quickly become normal as courthouse personnel have settled into the new rhythms. Beach said hearing lengths have stabilized, with judges allowing longer times for detention hearings in particular where “a person’s freedom is on the line.”

Even so, the courthouse has not been hit with backlogs, and judges generally have not struggled to handle days with heavy caseloads when extra judges sometimes share the duties.

A study based on courtroom observations by Loyola University researchers has found that pretrial hearings before the reforms averaged four to six minutes in four counties studied. After the reforms, most hearings increased by just a minute or so when a person’s release was uncontested.

Detention hearings saw a significant jump, with median lengths of 10 to 30 minutes, even up to an hour. The researchers also reported that judges were providing more detailed explanations for their rulings.

The 1st District Appellate Court has handed down hundreds of decisions, helping to iron out legal questions about the new law. And early data indicates that defendants released ahead of trial are showing up for hearings and largely are not being charged with new crimes.

Data provided by the chief judge’s office shows that since bail reform, judges have granted detention petitions from prosecutors about 60% of the time.

People who are released have continued to show up for hearings, with an arrest warrant being issued in only about 10% of cases when someone fails to show up. And 88% of people released have not been charged with a new crime. Of those who were released, 4% picked up a case for a crime involving violence. A 2020 Loyola study previously found about 3% of people released pretrial picked up a new charge for a crime involving violence.

Advocates of the reforms often note that both of those things happened under the old money system as well.

While encouraging, researchers say more data over a longer period of time is needed to reach conclusions about the impact of bail reform.

“The Pretrial Fairness Act has only been in effect for about seven months. … That’s not a very long time to look at outcomes,” Loyola University researcher Don Steman told journalists at a forum last month by the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, which advocated for the reforms.

Still, those numbers don’t appear to differ significantly from other jurisdictions in the country that have had similar procedures in place far longer.

Changing from the inside

Other indicators of how the new law is impacting the courts are the dramatic increase in appeals of judge’s decisions on what conditions to set and whether to deny someone’s release.

The Illinois Supreme Court recently announced new rules to help stem the deluge of appeals by requiring that defendants first ask the trial court to review the decision. Cook County has seen a lower rate of appeals than other jurisdictions.

In a panel discussion at the forum, Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart said he believed the reforms were leading to a ”better and fairer system” that was “safer for victims.”

But he called on lawmakers to provide more financial support, particularly for mental health services, which Rinehart said required a “New Deal-level” of investment. To that end, state lawmakers are considering a $15 million appropriations bill that would expand health, transportation and child care services to people awaiting trial.

Beach said he expects the state’s trailblazing law will remain in development for many years as it continues to be tested and adapts to the needs of the justice system.

“To be thoughtful, you have to also be patient,” he said.

Beach is one of several judges who oversaw the transition and is now being reassigned in the court system to make way for new judges to preside over pretrial hearings at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.

Judge Barbara Dawkins, not going far, will be assigned to a trial courtroom at the Leighton. And Judges Maryam Ahmad and Kelly McCarthy will move to civil courtrooms at the Daley Center, according to a spokesperson for Chief Judge Tim Evans.

New judges Shauna Boliker, Deidre Dyer, Antara Nath Rivera and Caroline Glennon-Goodman will join the division shortly. At least some have already appeared in court, shadowing veteran judges.

Boliker is the most seasoned judge of the group. Appointed to the bench in 2014, she worked as a prosecutor in Cook County for 25 years, including first assistant to former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Dyer is also a former prosecutor in Cook County. She was appointed to the bench by the state Supreme Court last year. Glennon-Goodman, a former assistant public defender, and Nath Rivera, who was a Cook County prosecutors early in her career, are the newest judges.

Both joined the judiciary this year: Glennon-Goodman was appointed by the Supreme Court and Nath Rivera was elected by her fellow circuit court judges.

Glennon-Goodman was an assistant public defender in Cook County before her appointment, and Nath Rivera worked for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office early in her career.

In recent years, judges in the pretrial division were usually rotated out after two years, though some, like Beach, stayed longer. The hearings are held 365 days a year, including holidays, and deal with difficult issues that carry significant consequences.

Beach said he is looking forward to challenges in his new assignment in the Law Division, but he will likely stay into June to help train the new judges who will oversee first hearings.

“I try to impart to them that the decision they are going to make will affect not only the person in front of them, but that person’s family, the community,” he said. “I tell them to take their time, listen closely.”

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