Cook County judge unveils change to cash bail

Hilary Gowins

VP of comms @illinoispolicy. Likes dogs and basketball.

Hilary Gowins
July 18, 2017

Cook County judge unveils change to cash bail

Reforms in Cook County and in Illinois make pretrial release possible for nondangerous defendants with little money for bail.

Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced July 17 a new step to keep offenders who pose no danger to the public out of jail before trial.

Starting Sept. 18, criminal defendants in Cook County who “are not deemed a danger to any person or the public … will receive a bail they can afford,” Evans said in a news release. As a result, those defendants won’t have to be locked up before they stand trial, according to reporting by the Chicago Sun-Times.

This news comes on the heels of the Bail Reform Act that was signed into law on June 9. This law provides for men and women who can’t come up with enough money for bail to get a rehearing of their bail amount.

Reforms that reduce the number of men and women being held in jail before trial – during which time they have not been found guilty of a crime – are important efforts to improve the justice system, and can also save taxpayers money.

As of Feb. 1, 95 percent of Cook County Jail’s population was made up of men and women simply awaiting trial.

The average jail stay costs taxpayers dearly. The cost to keep an inmate at Cook County Jail is $143 per day, and the average length of stay is 57 days – for a total cost of $8,151 per inmate. It is important to remember that people held in jail pretrial have not been found guilty of a crime. Many of the men and women detained before trial, who are not being held because a judge deemed they pose a flight or safety risk, are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to post bail.

The more men and women languishing in jail pretrial, the greater the public safety risk. Low-risk defendants are 51 percent more likely to commit a crime within two years when held in pretrial detention for eight to 14 days, according to a 2013 report from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. When a person is held pretrial, he or she may suffer severe personal hardships, such as the loss of a job or housing; this can also put a heavy strain on personal relationships.

Cash bail is a broken and outdated system that turns “innocent until proven guilty” on its head. Costly bail amounts prevent some defendants from obtaining their freedom before they are tried for a crime. Though the system exists to ensure public safety and give defendants an incentive to show up to court, money is an ineffective means to mitigate risk.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said in December 2016 that, over the course of a month, 25 percent of people charged with gun offenses were able to post bail, while only 4 percent of those arrested for retail theft were able to come up with the money required to be released on bail.

Evans’ announcement is a positive step toward reforming the cash bail system. Ultimately, Illinois should eliminate cash bail and use risk, not money, to decide who remains behind bars before trial.

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