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EDITORIAL: A Christmas season scandal — 19 inmates in jail just because they’re poor

Cook County Jail at 2700 S California Ave. File Photo. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Under Illinois law, nobody should be kept in jail before trial solely due to an inability to pay bail.

But 19 people in Cook County Jail, all charged with nonviolent crimes, are behind bars for just that reason. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has it exactly right in calling for their release before Christmas.

EDITORIAL

In September, Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy Evans issued an order reminding judges that bail for minor crimes should not be set at an amount that a person cannot pay. But that is still happening.

Judges set bail at a bond hearing, and they don’t always know how much a person can pay. To ensure people aren’t incarcerated only because they can’t make bail, a new state law requires a bond review in seven days. At that hearing, the court can ask why an individual has not made bail and release them on a no-cash bond or electronic monitoring.

But getting a huge bureaucracy to implement changes is a slow process, and most of the 19 people in jail never got a bond review, according to Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Defendants in custody have the right to demand a trial within 120 days, but that often can stretch into many months or years because of legal decisions by either prosecutors or defense lawyers. The amount of bail they need to post is set by a bond court judge who often is acting on limited information.

Even if prisoners do get a bond review, judges handling such cases in the past have been reluctant to second-guess their colleagues’ original decision.

As of Tuesday, the 19 people in jail whom Jackson wants freed had spent a combined total of 1,464 days in custody, at a cost to taxpayers of $238,632. Among the charges they face are forgery, driving on a suspended license, possession of a controlled substance, retail theft, criminal damage to property and assorted misdemeanors.

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“Christmas should be an intensely political season driven by a sense of morally centered passion about justice, liberating the poor, redeeming the despised and enfranchising the dispossessed,” Jackson said in a statement. “Not a secular season of buying and selling.”

All 19 of these cases should go to judges pronto for a bond review. Yes, it can take time for a big, lumbering court system to implement reform, but there’s no excuse for denying a bond review to people who have a right to one under state law.

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