Criminal justice reformers are making the case to end cash bail in Illinois

They say current bond reforms don’t go far enough to help those who cannot afford any bail and are no threat to the public if released. A proposed bill would end cash bail altogether.

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Cook County Jail.

Cook County Jail, file photo.

Sun-Times file

Violence can come in many forms.

Illinois is mired in controversy over new bail reforms that foster more humane treatment of people arrested for crimes. Critics say the reforms are too permissive and put violent criminals back on the street to terrorize us.

But our system as it stands fosters another kind of violence, others say.

The 2017 Bail Reform Act was approved by the Illinois General Assembly on a bipartisan vote.

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It provides that people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors or low-level felonies can be released without posting bail. Judges still have discretion and can order suspects to wear electronic monitors and other restrictions to protect public safety.

In 2017, Timothy Evans, the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, issued an order requiring judges considering bail to determine whether the “defendant has the present ability to pay the amount necessary.”

Defendants awaiting trial should not be held hostage by poverty. 

Those reforms don’t go far enough, because our justice system harbors another kind of violence, says Sharone Mitchell Jr., deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project.

It’s violence “when an individual looks at his public defender and says, ‘Hey, I don’t think I did this crime, but I can’t go back to county (jail). I’m going to plead guilty and do my time,’” said Mitchell, a former trial attorney at the Cook County public defender’s office.

They have not been convicted. Yet they can languish in jail for weeks and months because they can’t afford bail. They can’t return to their jobs, stay in school, take care of their children, prepare a defense.

Mitchell and other advocates made that case at a recent program I moderated, hosted by Human Rights Watch.

A “violent act,” Mitchell argued, is when “a mother is going to decide that she is either going to pay bond or she’s got to pay rent. That’s violence, right? That’s state-sponsored violence.”

Advocates are pushing HB 3347, proposed Illinois legislation that would abolish cash bail. 

“There’s this idea in the media that people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial are dangerous, or higher risk, and need to be locked up, and what we know is that overwhelmingly that’s just not the case. And when given the chance, people will succeed,” said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

Between Oct. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, 99.4 percent of the 24,504 defendants who appeared in Cook County bond court and were subsequently released were not charged with a new violent offense, shows a report from the chief judge’s office.

In the first six months of 2018, violent crimes reported in Chicago declined by nearly 8 percent, compared to the same period in 2017.

More than 90 percent of the 5,500 people in Cook County Jail are awaiting trial, according to the Bond Fund. Many are being held for offenses like shoplifting, trespassing, minor drug possession and vagrancy.

If you’re in jail, you’re more likely to accept a guilty plea just to get out, Mitchell said. If you can make bail, that money won’t be there for rent, food, medicine for the family.

“Recent studies that have examined it find that even if people manage to pay money bonds and get out, the fact that they have to scrape up that money makes it more likely they will be involved in the criminal justice system in the future,” Grace said.

In a system that criminalizes people of color and the poor, no-cash bail would be a heavy lift.

Laura Washington is a columnist for the Sun-Times and a political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @MediaDervish

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