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Long overdue changes coming to Cook County bond court

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is pushing long-overdue changes in bond court. Bond court is essentially the front door to the Cook County jail.

Here’s how it works. When people are arrested they're detained and then brought before a judge. If a defendant is a threat to public safety, he or she will remain in the jail until trial. If they're not a threat, the judge will set a bond: an amount of money the defendant has to pay to ensure they'll show up for court. But for years, judges have been using very little information to determine the amount of the bond.

The bond hearings are usually less than a minute long. People are herded in and out and the judges are often rattling off rules and warnings at the pace of auctioneers.

But that system may be changing.

Six months ago, Preckwinkle established a Justice Advisory Council, which studied the bond court and is now making recommendations to slow the process down, make it more humane, and more just. It could also save the county some cash.

The council is recommending that police reports be filed electronically, so that the information can be shared early in the morning and then verified by pretrial services. The council is also pushing for another bond courtroom to handle the 140 bond hearings that take place every day. With more information and more time bond court judges will likely have more flexibility to set lower bonds. That means poor people would be able to post bond more easily and get out of jail. Preckwinkle says housing inmates costs the county about $140 a day.

Those changes should get more defendants out the door immediately, but for defendants who are still in jail 24 hours after their bond hearing, the county is going to take a second look at the cases. If the defendant simply can’t afford to post bond then public defenders can file a motion for reconsideration to present additional information to the judge, which might result in a lower, more affordable bond.

In studying bond court, the Justice Advisory Council also found cases where defendants could have been released from the jail but they were homeless. The county is going to contract with shelters to have a less expensive alternative to jail for those defendants.

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