Has the Motion to Reconsider program brought change to Cook County’s broken bond court system?

Has the Motion to Reconsider program brought change to Cook County’s broken bond court system?
Photo of model taken by Colorless Rainbow/flickr.

A bill attempting to allow nonviolent, first-time offenders to avoid paying a bond so they could leave the jail while awaiting trial died an unceremonious death at its third reading in the Illinois House of Representatives last month. With a bill making changes to bond court failing to pass--for the second legislative session--  we thought it would be a good time to check in with an up and running initiative to make changes to Cook County’s broken bond court system.

This program is the brainchild of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who nearly a year ago introduced a bevy of changes to the county’s bond court. The changes came on the heels of a 2012 Cook County Justice Advisory Council study that found “the vast majority” of the 9,000-plus people then behind bars at Cook County Jail were there because they couldn’t pay their pre-trial bail.

The study looked at the operation of bond court and pre-trial services at the Cook County Central Bond Court at the Leighton Criminal Court House from the first six months of 2012. Of the total detainee population in Cook County Jail, one of the largest single-site jails in the country, 66 percent had a cash bond between them and their release from jail, which would allow them to await a trial date on the outside.

When Preckwinkle’s bond court program was first introduced in July 2012, the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a Chicago-based group of attorneys that promotes social justice, estimated that the program could improve thousands of lives by allowing more defendants to post bonds so that they can continue their school or work while awaiting trial.

Preckwinkle’s program looked at several ways to target the bond issue. One solution was the Motion to Reconsider program, which offers people who are in jail a chance for a new hearing to have their bond amount reconsidered.

Bond amounts are set by judges, and hearings to set bond for people who have been arrested take place in what is commonly referred to as “bond court.”

Under Preckwinkle’s program, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office would help decide who goes into the new Motion to Reconsider docket, by sending judges and public defenders a list of everyone who is already in jail, or has been behind bars 24 hours with a bond of $100,000 or less.  Because most bail payments are10 percent of the bond amount, the list would focus on people who can’t pay $10,000.

Preckwinkle’s program would also upgrade the meetings rooms where lawyers meet with their clients before going into bond court.

Here’s a breakdown from the Cook County Justice Advisory Council study of bond amounts handed down to pre-trial detainees during the first six months of 2012:

 

 

Of all the detainees offered a cash bond, the largest percentage, 14.5 percent, had bonds set between $60,001 and $100,000. Those individuals would have had to pay between $6,000 and $10,000.

At the lower end of the scale, where the bond for nonviolent and first-time offenders is most concentrated, 8.9 percent of the jail’s population was locked up, despite being required to pay a bail of less than $2,000.

Since the Justice Advisory Council study nearly a year ago, what has actually changed at Cook County Court?

Juliana Stratton, executive director of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, gave a brief rundown of the changes:

  • An upgraded space and an increased use of digital records, are going to the public defender’s office to help attorneys determine their clients' ties to their community, job or schools
  • An $800,000 investment in additional space for pre-trial interviews, which will give the public defenders more space to interview defendants
  • The Motion to Reconsider docket up and running

The county will be tracking whether reconsidering defendant’s bond amounts will make it easier for them to post bail. They’ll do this by following the number of bonds that are changed and whether a detainee then posts bail, said Stratton, but the data aren’t available yet. The county plans to review the data to determine the program’s effectiveness closer to the date the program was started.

John Maki, executive director of the prison watchdog group the John Howard Association of Illinois, said his group hadn’t seen a significant decrease in people being stuck in jail because they couldn’t pay. Maki’s group, which keeps in regular contact with some inmates at different facilities from around the state, said the programs had a ways to go.

“Our sense from the sidelines is that people … who could make bond if they had the money [are still being held],” Maki said. “We know that folks who end up in the justice system often do not have living-wage jobs. We should only be detaining people who post a violent threat to our safety, not who don’t have money to post bond.”

In response, Stratton acknowledged that the Motion to Reconsider docket was still in its early stages.

“It will take some time to make significant inroads,” she said. “Nevertheless, identifying cases for this docket are made on a case-by-case basis.  Since public safety is one of the primary concerns, some motions will be denied and some cases will not be considered for this call.”

This post was updated on May 13, 2013, to note that 14 percent of the detainees who were offered cash bonds had the amount set between $60,0001 and $100,000, rather than the $6,001 and $10,000. A bail of less than $2,000, rather than $200, was set for 8.9 percent of the jail's population. We regret the error.

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