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Cook County’s 2017 bail reform didn’t result in more violent crime, Loyola study finds

The cost of making bail fell, and more people were freed with no payment. But the chance of someone freed being charged with a violent crime while awaiting trial didn’t change.

Cook County Jail near 26th Street and California Avenue.
Cook County Jail.
Sun-Times file

As violent crime in Chicago has been on the rise this year, the police have pointed to people being freed on bail as one of the driving factors in the growing number of shootings — but a new Loyola University Chicago study says that’s probably not true.

Cook County’s 2017 bail reform required judges to set affordable bail for defendants they deemed could be released while awaiting trial without endangering the public.

The Loyola study concluded that there was no “statistically significant” change in the amount of crime in Chicago in the year after the reform took effect in September 2017.

After the reform, the number of people who weren’t required to post any money at all to be released on bail — called an “I-bond” — doubled, the study found. About 26% of defendants received them before the reform and 57% afterward. And the average cost of cash bail decreased from about $9,300 before the reform to about $3,800 afterward.

But the number of people released before trial didn’t change a lot — from 77% of defendants before the reform to 81% after, according to the Loyola study.

The chance of someone on bail being charged with a new crime while awaiting trial remained about the same— 17% — as did the probability of someone getting arrested for a violent offense — 3%.

“Releasing people on their own recognizance does not make communities less safe,” the study found. “Taking money away from people to secure their release does not make communities safer — but it does impose a significant burden on those individuals and their families who are least able to afford it.”

Don Stemen, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University and one of the study’s authors.
Don Stemen, chairman of Loyola’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology and one of the study’s authors.
Loyola University Chicago

The study also said the risk-assessment tool adopted as part of Cook County’s bond court reform appears to be “providing judges with additional insights to better inform bond court decisions. Specifically, the analyses described here found that the higher the risk level, the less likely the defendant was to receive an I-bond or to be released pretrial.”

In a video conference Thursday on the study, Loyola researcher David Olson was asked about the Chicago police pointing to the reform as a reason for increasing violence this year.

Loyola University Chicago associate professor David Olson.
Loyola University Chicago associate professor David Olson.
Loyola University Chicago

“If bail reform practices haven’t dramatically changed this year, which we don’t believe to have occurred, then we have to start looking at all of the other possible explanations for the increase in violence,” Olson said. “With the pandemic and with the shutdown came a lot of economic stress on communities and individuals.”

The study examined hundreds of thousands of criminal cases in Cook County.

The 2017 reform was launched by Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans in part because people charged with low-level crimes like shoplifting were typically unable to post even relatively small amounts of money – like $1,000 — to be freed on bail.

Evans released an analysis finding no significant rise in violence because of the reform. Last year, the judge wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Sun-Times in which he said, “99.8% of felony defendants released on bail do not receive charges of new gun-related violent crime while their cases are pending.”

In February, criminologists at the University of Utah published a paper that disputed Evans’ analysis, saying his study’s methodology was flawed and that violent crime had, in fact, increased significantly as a result of the reform. The Loyola professors said that study suffered from “methodological problems.”