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Editorial: Jail is meant for the dangerous, not for shoplifters

Sheriff Tom Dart | Sun-Times file photo


Cook County is moving in the right direction when it comes to reducing the number of people locked up in jail simply because they can’t afford to make bail.

But the county can and should do more — as a matter of justice and for the sake of the taxpayers — to achieve this increasingly bipartisan goal.

Most recently, as Frank Main reported in Tuesday’s Sun-Times, Sheriff Thomas Dart has called for abolishing the state’s cash bonds in favor of something similar to Washington, D.C.’s system, in which about 90 percent of suspects are released without having to put up money. Dart’s idea makes good sense, and we urge the Legislature to give it serious consideration.

Judges set cash bail to ensure a defendant shows up in court. If a suspect posts bail, is released and doesn’t come back, the money may be forfeited. The money also may be forfeited if a suspect doesn’t comply with conditions a judge sets for bail, such as remaining in school or avoiding drugs and alcohol. Judges also might set very high bail in cases where a suspect is considered someone who is a danger to the community.

EDITORIAL

But, as Dart points out, the system has an inherent flaw. People charged with serious crimes can be released if they have access to enough cash, while people facing minor charges sit behind bars because they can’t scrape a few bucks together. As of Nov. 14, 185 people were stewing in jail because they couldn’t pay bail of $1,000 or less.

We should all be troubled, for example, by the case of Kevin Lenoir, 23, who was released from jail in April — even though he faced a gun charge and a drug-conviction probation violation — because he could come up with $10,500 bail. Meanwhile, Veronica Gorlecki sat in jail for 112 days because she couldn’t come up with $2,500 for bail after she was arrested for trespassing in a trailer park.

Which one of these two people is back in jail on charges of shooting three victims, killing one? Hint: Not the woman who was trespassing.

A system in which people charged with serious crimes are released while others accused of minor offenses are jailed makes no sense. And it goes on all the time in our criminal justice system. In a sampling of 30 days of cases in bond court, the sheriff’s office found that accused gun offenders had the cash to be released 25 percent of the time, while retail theft suspects were able to post bail only 4 percent of the time.

We never realized the purpose of Cook County Jail is to protect us from shoplifters.

According to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who also proposed getting away from a cash bail system during a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in June, the county already has made progress in reducing the number of nonviolent suspects awaiting trial behind bars. More people are being released on their own recognizance or on electronic monitoring. Fewer people arrested are being required to post cash bail, including almost all of those who are rated the best risks under the county’s new risk assessment system. Over the past three years, the Cook County Jail population has dropped significantly.

But as Dart’s numbers show, the county has a way to go.

Going to a no-cash system is just one proposed remedy to this unjust imbalance. Dart also has pushed legislation allowing sheriffs to seek reductions in bail, just as judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys can now. That bill may come up for a vote in the Legislature’s veto session.

Other ideas may come up on Thursday, when the Cook County Board will hold a hearing on ways to further reduce the number of nonviolent suspects who are in jail awaiting trial. It costs more than $1,000 a week to house those people, money that could be spent much more wisely on job training, mental health services or counseling or returned to taxpayers.

Progress has been made, but we need to keep pushing until we have a bail system that makes sense.