What Happens In Cook County Criminal Courts When The Cameras Aren’t Rolling? | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

What Happens In Cook County Criminal Courts When The Cameras Aren’t Rolling?

Former Chicago Police Department officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to 81 months in prison in January for the 2014 fatal shooting of Chicago teen Laquan McDonald. 

Van Dyke’s trial received a lot of attention. The trial itself was televised and there were expert witnesses and press conferences from both prosecution and defense teams. 

A team of attorneys represented Van Dyke while a special prosecutor was called in to try the case, but since Van Dyke was a police officer when he committed his crime, his case was an unusual one. The way most people move through the Cook County criminal justice system is quite different.

Morning Shift talks to Sharone Mitchell with the Illinois Justice Project about how the Cook County criminal justice system operates for cases that are not high-profile.

What happens to most defendants awaiting trial

Sharone Mitchell: In that time, if you’re charged, like Jason Van Dyke was, with a very serious crime, you are typically incarcerated pre-trial. You know, jail is for people awaiting trial typically. Prison is for people who have been found guilty of an offense, and for an offense [as serious as Van Dyke’s] typically a person is either offered no bond or given a cash bond that is so high that they can’t make it. So that is one of the big differences between — first big differences between Jason Van Dyke and the average criminal defendant.

Jenn White: Now, people are talking about reforms to the cash bail system. Talk about what’s going on there.

Mitchell: Well, I think there are lots of people that believe that the use of cash bonds just doesn’t make sense. It’s a bastion — it’s from the Old West, when people would go from town to town robbing banks, and the thought was that if they hold some money, then they’ll stick around in town and go to court, right? That’s really not the scenario now, and what we know is the vast majority of people are poor, so when you use money, when you say, “The only way you’ll get out is if you pay out a certain amount of money,” and the majority of criminal defendants are poor, then that’s not fair, and really we should just be focusing on the judge determining what a person’s risk is, or what a person’s likelihood to come to court in deciding whether that person will go to jail or be out in the public while they await their trial.

Defendants are incentivized to plea

Mitchell: The vast majority of cases — the numbers are in the 90s nationally — I think they might be a little bit lower here in Cook County — but the vast majority of cases end in pleas. Now, most people would look at that number and say, “Hey, that’s a lot of people who’ve been arrested for a crime that they’re guilty of and they’re admitting guilt.” Others closer to the situation would argue that — would point out that there are some structural kind of funnels to plea bargains, things like trial and jury taxes. That is if you are to go to trial, you’re likely gonna face a much longer sentence [than] if you plead guilty to a crime, right? That’s something that really kind of drives people to take pleas, and also our sentencing guidelines, right? When you can have a long period of time that you’re looking at — 20, 30 years, as opposed to a much smaller offer. That drives people to plead guilty as well.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Char Daston. Click play to hear the full conversation.

GUEST: Sharone Mitchell, Deputy Director at the Illinois Justice Project

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