A Look at Cook County's Central Bond Court

January 18, 2010

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Cook County's Courthouse at 26th and California on Chicago's Southwest side (Tony Arnold/WBEZ)
The Central Bond Court of Cook County is a big, overly-bright room in a massive courthouse at 26th and California on Chicago's Southwest Side. It's the first place you see when you're arrested in the county. And what happens there has a big impact on your fate. The proceedings also create a ripple effect, one that can spread outward, affecting taxpayers and communities. WBEZ's Tony Arnold spent months inside Cook County's Central Bond Court to find out why some lawyers and legal observers think what goes on there is unconstitutional.

Blog: Breaking down bond court: A closer look at electronic monitoring
Related: Policies and Problems of Cook County Central Bond Court

If you haven't been to bond court, you might be thinking something out of Law & Order. And you'd mostly be right. The idea is as simple as the plot of a TV show. You get arrested for a crime, you go before a judge. The judge decides how much money it will take to make sure you show up in court for your next hearing. That money's your bond, or bail, a kind of guarantee to the court. Typically, the more serious the crime, the higher the bond.

Every day in Cook County, anywhere from 70 to more than 100 people file through the real-life drama that is central bond court. And it all happens fast. Much faster than in other courtrooms that aren't as busy as Cook County's.

On an overcast, windy spring morning, it's 17-year-old Jose Gutierrez's turn. When his number is called out, number 54 on this day, Jose approaches the judge from the back room where the holding cells are. His long black hair's tied back; his hands are locked together behind his back.

Now, Cook County doesn't allow audio recorders in its court rooms, so I asked a couple of colleagues to re-enact the roles of the prosecutor and the public defender as Jose's hearing played out.

PROSECUTOR: One felony for possession of one ounce of cocaine and one felony for possession of one ounce marijuana. No prior convictions and no missed court dates. He does has a pending misdemeanor for assault.

PUBLIC DEFENDER: Jose is 17 years old. A senior in high school. His brother is in the courtroom. Life-long resident of Chicago. No job and no children.

In about 40 seconds, Jose's court hearing is over. Judge Ramon Ocasio sets Jose's bond: $20,000. If they're going keep Jose out of Cook County Jail, his family has to come up with $2,000. 

That 40 seconds is pretty typical for this court. A recent academic study measured Cook County Central Bond hearings. 47 seconds was the average. Critics, including a federal judge, say for most cases, justice just can't reliably be done in that time. It's one reason they call what goes on in this courtroom unconstitutional; a violation of due process.

Alex Sanders thinks it's just unfair.

ALEX: It really sucks. $2,000 that we don't have.
 
Alex is Jose's older brother, the one in the courtroom. We met before the hearing, as families sat impatiently, waiting for the 11:45 sharp daily court call. Alex and I sat together in the back of the courtroom on the hard wooden benches; gang symbols and swear words scratched into the backs.

Out the side window, there's not much of a view other than Popeye's Chicken sign, one of the few restaurants within walking distance of the courthouse.

Alex is able to talk to me only outside. But first, he stops at a pay phone to call his mother about the $20,000 bond. The news isn't good. It's rare for families to show up in bond court. Alex says his just doesn't have that kind of money on hand. That means Jose will have to stay at Cook County Jail, at least while his family scrambles to put the money together.

ALEX: Majority of the money we are using is going to be from his graduation party, his class ring, and, you know, the cap and gown, everything like that.

It's a graduation Jose might not see, if the bond money can't be raised. According to the police report, Jose was joyriding in a car with seven other people. They had the music pumping. The police pulled the car over and found some drugs: an ounce of pot and an ounce of cocaine. When officers asked whose they were, Jose took the fall. He was the only one from the car arrested.

Here's his brother, Alex.

ALEX: If he wasn't rushed through there so fast, the judge probably would've get a little bit better feel for what kind of person he is. I know first impressions are everything, and within 20 seconds you can't really get a good first impression on a person.

It's a daily complaint from families at Central Bond Court.

MONTAGE: I don't think that it should've been that high. She should've done more research and stuff.
It seemed like a first charge you would've got an I-bond, but that's how the system goes, so...
I wish I had a lawyer.
Way too high. That was way too high, for real.
$50,000 cash. That's not...that's not going to be done.

The way it works in Cook County, if you're arrested north, you might go to the Skokie courthouse. West, you'll likely go to Maywood. Those don't have nearly the number of cases. By far most people come here to Central Bond Court. 

Judges who run the system say that's a big reason efficiency so critical. Remember those 47 seconds? Generally, defense lawyers meet their clients moments before the bond hearing. And the case load is so large, they read their arguments fast. Sometimes so fast, it can seem like a game to anyone watching from the gallery. A game with high stakes. Go home or go to jail. The judge has a few options when it comes to different bonds.

I-Bond.

An I-bond is what everyone wants. You go home, but must show up to your next court date. No money is due.

Electronic Monitoring.

There's electronic monitoring, or house arrest, where you can't leave your house.

No bond.

It's rare. But sometimes a defendant is charged with such a violent crime, the judge doesn't give him the option to post the money and go home.

D-Bond.

A D-bond is by far the most common bond Cook County judges give out. It's what Judge Ocasio gives Jose Gutierrez, where the defendant goes to jail until he or she can pay ten percent of the bond.

When Jose approaches the bench, the judge is handed a rap sheet on him. It's a sort of risk assessment, where a person independent from the prosecutors and the defense attorneys talks to Jose, just for a minute, before his bond hearing. The start time of bond court was pushed back to 11:45 to make more time for these interviews, but many say it's still a rush process.

Critics of the court argue that this all-important social history just can't be done in such a short time. On a scale of 0-10 with 10 being the highest risk, Jose gets a 1. Some judges might see that and think he's a good candidate for electronic monitoring, but Judge Ocasio doesn't think so.

The Cook County sheriff tracks how many defendants judges assign to electronic monitoring. That entire week, out of 771 defendants, Ocasio assigned 23 to electronic monitoring. The week before Jose's hearing, a different judge put 82 people on electronic monitors. The week after, 92.

With that number fluctuating so widely depending on which judge happens to be in charge of bond court on a particular day, critics say it can make for arbitrary justice. For Jose, bond court was a direct route to Cook County Jail.

JOSE: I was pretty much, like, nervous and scared and, you know, I was, like, impatient. When I hit the decks and everything, I just couldn't be there.

Jose doesn't say a lot about the three days he spent in jail, waiting for his family to bring the 2,000 to 26th and California, using the class ring and graduation party savings.

JOSE: When they bonded me out, I was just thinking, man, it felt good in a way because you had people that cared about you that are actually trying to get you out.

It takes a few months, but by the time Jose's due back in court, his family has come through again. They put money down for a private lawyer, not a public defender. Jose's case is thrown out for lack of evidence. I catch up with Jose and Alex at their parents' apartment in Chicago??s Uptown neighborhood. His brother, Alex, feels jaded from the experience.

ALEX: All it really is, is money. Just for the simple fact that bond is money and want to hold it. Just like, all a sudden you never called a lawyer, but while you locked up and before you get home, you got 20, 30 letters from different law firms wanting to represent you, already. So how they get your stuff? And the court still keep their percentage. As long as they get their cut, that's all. Just like they threw it out. They show he spent a little bit of money here, the lawyer got his cut, the court system got their cut. Go ahead, go home. Next.

As Alex rants, Jose keeps quiet. He says he just wants to get on with his life. Soon after his case is dropped, Jose takes a job working evenings for a catering company. He goes back to high school and graduates with his class. And doesn't end up back in Cook County Jail, with the other nearly 9,000 inmates.