Major bail reforms in Cook County led to a decrease in the number of people held in jail, but the reforms did not increase violent crime, according to a report released Thursday by the office of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
According to the report, in the 15 months following the reform, from October 2017 to December 2018, the average daily jail population dropped by 16%, from 6,940 to 5,799. Meanwhile, the percentage of felony defendants committing crimes while out on bond remained stable between the 15-month period before the reform and the 15 months after the changes.
In addition, the report cites FBI statistics showing that overall violent crime in Chicago declined by 8% from the first six months in 2017, before the reforms, to the same period a year later after the reforms.
The report said reforms “allowed more defendants to remain in their communities prior to trial, where they can work, pursue their education and support their families. The vast majority of released defendants appear in court for all hearings. Bail reform has not led to an increase in violent crime in Chicago.”
Jail population drops, money plays smaller role
Bail is money a defendant pays while awaiting trial to ensure that they will return to court. If people do not pay their bail, they are held behind bars. Prior to bail reform, many people in the county jail were there simply because they were unable to pay the required bail amount while they awaited trial.
The money bail system has been critiqued for unfairly punishing poor people and disproportionately affecting communities of color. In September 2017, Evans directed judges to only set bail amounts that people could afford.
Because the reforms require judges to only set bail amounts that people can afford, the number of people who were allowed to be in the community, without posting any bond money, increased. The percentage of people getting those kinds of non-monetary bonds (called I-Bonds) nearly doubled from about 26% to about 51%. The increase was most dramatic for black defendants.
At the same time, the use of “no bail,” where a person has no option of leaving jail, also increased. This is because if a judge decides someone is a risk to public safety, they are supposed to be held no matter what they are willing to pay.
The increase in both I-Bonds and “no bail” shows that money is playing a less significant role in deciding who is kept behind bars while they await trial.
Overall, the effects of the reform were particularly strong in black communities, since about 70%of people appearing for bail hearings are African American.
The changing jail population has not been without controversy. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office has said that since the bail reforms were enacted, more people with gun offenses are put on electronic monitors and allowed to live in the community, instead of jail, while they await trial.
“We are fully supportive of comprehensive reform and applaud the progress that has been made. However, we have growing concerns about the impact on our electronic monitoring program to which record numbers of violent and repeat gun offenders are being ordered,” said Cara Smith, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.
But advocates for bail reform say having more people on electronic monitors instead of jail hasn’t actually put the public more at risk.
Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said it’s important to remember that electronic monitoring “is an incredibly serious restriction on liberty that amounts to a form of pretrial incarceration.”
Bail reform and crime
The report examined how many people with felony charges released on bond were charged with a new crime while out on bond. It found that the percentage held steady after bail reform, with about 8 out of 10 people not being charged for a new crime.
One particular concern about bail reform, expressed in a recent Chicago Tribune article, is that bail reform could pose a threat to survivors of domestic violence.
The numbers from the judge’s office do not show an increase in people accused of domestic violence committing new crimes while released on bail. In 2016, prior to the judge’s order on bail, 514 people accused of domestic violence were arrested on new charges while out on bail. In 2018, after the chief judge’s order, that number was 486.
But the judge’s numbers don’t show the whole picture, said Vicki Smith with the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “The ‘offenses’ may not be arrestable charges, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing things that terrify their partner or ex-partner,” said Smith.
Criminal justice advocates have pushed back, however, that keeping people in jail prior to a trial is not the way to fix this problem.
The judge’s report estimates that the overall drop in jail population has saved Cook County taxpayers millions of dollars. “This could create a substantial pool of money for justice reinvestment to address the unmet needs in the community for the criminal justice population, including assistance with employment, housing, substance use treatment, and mental health services,” reads the report.
Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @shannon_h.