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Editorial: Stewing in jail because you are poor is wrong

Detainees at Cook County Jail wait to be processed on Dec. 24, 2014. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times

People shouldn’t sit in jail awaiting trial for nonviolence offenses just because they can’t scrape bail money together. By the time the trial rolls around, they may already have served more time behind bars than they would have served for a conviction. If they turn out to be innocent, there’s no way to give back that time.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, along with a number of county commissioners, have been leading efforts to get judges to order lower bonds, electronic monitoring or more no-cash I-bonds, which allow defendants to stay out of jail while they await trial. But the complaints continue within the criminal justice system that too many judges unnecessarily order bail that is too high for some people to pay.

EDITORIAL

It’s time more judges got serious about lowering bonds. We understand no one on the bench wants to be the person who allows a suspect to return to the street — only to commit a serious crime. But we are not talking about major infractions here. In one case we’ve written about in the past, a 33-year-old man was ordered held on $50,000 cash bail for possession of two Viagra pills. Should taxpayers foot the $143-a-day cost of jailing someone for such an offense?

Judges set bonds to ensure people show up for trial. If people don’t show up, they forfeit what they have paid. But judges have to be careful that some people without the means to pay aren’t kept in jail while others with more money and charged with the same types of crimes are released.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey notes that courts in New York City and Washington D.C. release dramatically more people on I-bonds without creating a problem; just as many people show up for court as Cook County does.

On Monday, Preckwinkle and four county commissioners launched a new campaign to make a significant dent in the amount of bail judges are requiring. They have scheduled a public hearing on Nov. 17 to dig into the issue.

Some reform efforts already are underway. Dart is pushing for legislation that would allow his office to seek lower bonds for poor detainees. “Rocket Docket” legislation he championed last year and earlier this year requires some low-level suspects with no recent violent crime convictions be tried within 30 days or released from jail on an I-bond or under electronic monitoring. A new risk-assessment system to help judges decide which suspects can be safely freed is in place.

But progress is slow. Last year, Cook County Jail had 1,024 “turnarounds” — people who spent more time in jail awaiting trial that they were sentenced to afterward. Most of the turnaround cases were for nonviolent crimes. The average person spent 2½ extra months in jail.

In July,  the Sun-Times reported that Cook County judges routinely set bail for crime suspects at levels contrary to what the new risk-assessment system calls for. Last week, two men, one of whom is represented by the MacArthur Justice Center, filed a class action lawsuit arguing “excessive” bail set by Cook County judges is unconstitutional.

In a statement Monday, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans said the courts have made significant progress. More I-bonds and electronic monitoring orders have been issued and the average population at the jail has declined, he said. In the first half of 2016, 94 percent of the lowest risk defendants were released pre-trial, he said.

That’s good. But Dart, Preckwinkle and others are correct that we can’t stop pushing until we have a system that treats all poor people fairly.