Cook County Jail holds too many people who are there simply because they can’t make their bail for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

One man recently spent 114 days in jail for allegedly stealing a pack of Snickers bars, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $16,000. Another man spent 308 days in jail, accused of stealing toothpaste and breath mints. That cost taxpayers $44,044. People have languished behind bars because they couldn’t pay bail of just a couple of hundred dollars.

That’s an injustice, entirely in conflict with our nation’s ideal of due process, for them and for society.

To reduce the number of nonviolent arrestees in jail, the Cook County Circuit Court has put into place a “risk assessment” tool in the felony bond court at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. The intent is to help judges identify which defendants can safely be sent home to await trial with a no-cash bond. The new approach holds the additional promise of eliminating subconscious or institutional racial bias by judges in making those decisions.

In concept, this could be a winner.

But more than a year after the first phase of the program went into operation, some of those involved in the reform effort say it isn’t working as hoped. They tell worrisome stories, such as the one about the guy who stole the candy bars.

This is a program that cannot be allowed to fail. It requires strong support from judges, law enforcement, lawyers and the public.

EDITORIAL

Illinois long has had a law that outlines 36 factors judges should consider when setting bail, such as whether the defendant has a job or is going to school. The risk assessment program, which looks more at prior run-ins with the law, adds a new layer of screening.

The court’s pre-trial services office now gathers information on such factors as a defendant’s age, the alleged offense, prior convictions, failures to appear in court in the past and other pending charges at the time of the alleged offense. According to research by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Luminosity, a criminal justice consulting firm, those factors taken together — and boiled down to a numerical rating — strongly help predict whether a defendant will fail to appear in court or get in trouble with the law again while awaiting trial.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans, whose office runs the risk assessment program, tells us it’s off to a promising start. The program has been fully implemented only since March 31, and the number of I-bonds — or non-cash bonds — rose from 22 percent of all bond orders in April through June of last year to 38 percent in April through May of this year, according to Evans’ office. Equally important, only 4 percent of those defendants have been charged with further crimes while back on the street.

In theory, that means a significant number of defendants who once might have been packed off to jail are awaiting trial at home instead.

But a spokesperson for Sheriff Thomas Dart said the average jail population has not declined over that time. Moreover, last year 1,024 inmates were “turnarounds,” inmates who in effect served their sentences before a trial even started. Clearly, there’s lots more work to be done.

We understand that the risk assessment program has been fully implemented for only about three months. But it’s up to Evans to ensure that bond court judges are embracing that program. He should fully share statistics and other information with other stakeholders in the reform effort. And he should welcome into the process the groups and individuals who are trying to make reform work.

In a speech last week at the Commercial Club of Chicago, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke — who helped push for a risk assessment program — said too many Cook County judges are continuing to require large cash bonds even for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

In one case in March, a man who was a passenger in a car with a cracked windshield that was driving on the wrong side of the street in Chicago was arrested for possessing half a marijuana joint and two Viagra pills. The judge slapped him with bail of $50,000, of which he would have had to pay $5,000 to get out of jail while awaiting trial. He couldn’t pay it, so he sat in jail for 10 days until the charges were dismissed.

When we told Judge Evans about that man, he said he could not comment without knowing more details of the man’s case. Had the man, for example, skipped out on court hearings before?

But Evans agreed his own statistical proof of the success of the new system in bond court, which aims to reduce the jail’s population at no increased risk to the public, is preliminary.

This is Judge Evans’ job and challenge: To make reform work. The next year should tell the true story.

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