Most of the more than 5,000 Chicagoans awaiting trial in Cook County Jail can't afford to post bond and get out, so they sit there, at a substantial cost to the county, until their next hearing.
Changes on the way to the bond court system, driven by county President Toni Preckwinkle, may have some seeing the light of day.
A move towards allowing non-violent offenders a "second chance" to petition for a release, put in motion by a Cook County examination into bond court and pre-trial services, has shined a long-awaited spotlight on the quagmire that bond payments can be for low-income people.
Preckwinkle's "Motion to Reconsider," now in the initial stages of being implemented, would allow detainees for non-violent offenses who can't afford a low bond the chance to perhaps be released on their own recognizance or, at the very least, get a review of other options than just staying put.
This situation has long been a problem. And legislation, which passed the House in Springfield but failed in the Senate in the past session, recognized the issues and offered solutions.
HB 5182, proposed in February by Rep. Monique D. Davis and later co-sponsored by Sen. Annazette R. Collins, initially said that for a non-violent crime, "the court shall not impose bail in an amount that exceeds 10% of the annual salary of the defendant." If a defendant is indigent - poor - "the court shall release the defendant on his or her own recognizance."
Rep. Davis and Sen. Collins did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. Davis then added an amendment changing the bill to say that for a first-time non-violent offender "the court shall order him or her released on his or her own recognizance, unless the court makes a specific finding that a cash bond is necessary to secure his or her appearance."
Further, the bill even had provisions taking income into account when deciding whether to detain an offender at all.
Meanwhile, the Cook County proposed "Motion to Reconsider" would only look at a defendant's bond payment status after they were already in the system.
The report paints a bleak picture of the bond process, and Preckwinkle noted the system was not doing what it was created to do.
“Bonds are set to protect the community and ensure the defendant appears for his or her trial,” Preckwinkle said. “However, too many individuals facing non-violent charges remain in custody, because they can’t pay a low bail.”
Cook County Jail has the distinction of being the largest single-site jail in the United States. According to the Justice Advisory Council study on the bond system, the average number of bond hearings at the Central Bond Court daily during the first six months of 2012 was 140.
When people do get taken into custody, keeping them is expensive. In 2010, it cost the city $143 per inmate per day, according to the Cook County blog. The majority of those in the jail population--70 percent--are not charged with a violent crime, the blog noted.
Many of these people are low-income.
William Wolf, a public defender who works exclusively on murder cases, says it is no surprise that there is a preponderance of poor people in jail because they cannot pay.
Wolf says that when judges are deciding the bond payment for a defendant, they take into consideration "the nature of the crime, criminal history, has the defendant ever failed to appear in court."
Though he is not aware of a single time that a judge has taken income into consideration, a "defendant that has [committed] the same crime as another but has a job" could be treated very differently.
Roopal Patel and Meghna Philip from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, in an email interview, pointed to a recent publication of theirs which notes that "criminal justice debt is a huge problem for the overwhelmingly indigent population of the United States criminal justice system.
"Judges can impose numerous conditions on bail--such as it be fully secured by assets, or (until March of this year in New York state) that it be cash-only," wrote Patel and Philip, which makes it even more difficult for low-income people to pay.
Preckwinkle's push for a more humane system arose out of a dispute with Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the bonds of immigrant detainees, but has expanded to something that could benefit a larger group.
What low-income people will reasonably be able to pay for bail is difficult to say.
Tracy Velazquez, with the Justice Policy Institute, told The Chicago Reporter that their case study of Baltimore's prison population found that even paying $500 for bail was difficult for some.
"Our work in Baltimore showed that almost one in ten people were being held in jail on bail of $5,000 or less. That means not only that they weren’t able to raise $5,000 to pay their own full bail, but they didn’t have the resources for a bail bond," wrote Velazquez. "Bail bonds are often about ten percent. So we’re talking about people who don’t have friends or family who can come up with $500."
With legislation to fix the bond system off the table, Preckwinkle's new "Motion to Reconsider" is the best chance for the potentially thousands stuck in jail to get out while awaiting trial.
© Community Renewal Society 2012