Blaming Chicago’s Violence On Bail Reform Is Wrong, A New Study Finds

inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago line up to be processed for release.
Inmates line up in the Cook County jail Sept. 29, 2011. Reforms to bond court in 2017 resulted in more people being released while awaiting trial. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press
inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago line up to be processed for release.
Inmates line up in the Cook County jail Sept. 29, 2011. Reforms to bond court in 2017 resulted in more people being released while awaiting trial. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press

Blaming Chicago’s Violence On Bail Reform Is Wrong, A New Study Finds

At the end of June, as Chicago was reeling from another tragically bloody weekend, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown got up in front of reporters and repeated a familiar refrain. He said there was a simple fix for the violence: Judges needed to keep more people locked up while awaiting trial.

“Electronic monitoring and low bond amounts given to offenders endangers our residents and flies in the face of the hard work our police officers put in on a daily basis to take them off the streets,” Brown said. “I will continue to bring attention to the sheer number of repeat offenders who are given little to no jail time and low bonds and … go on to commit more crimes.”

A week earlier, Brown had said he was concerned that “violent felons are getting right out of jail” after being arrested.

When asked for evidence for his claims Brown said they were based on his “33 years of law enforcement experience.”

Police and city leaders have long pointed the finger at efforts to let more people out of jail while awaiting trial as a cause of Chicago crime. Those accusations have only gotten louder as Chicago struggles with a startling spike in shootings. But a new report from researchers at the University of Loyola has found that Cook County bail reforms have had “no effect” on violence or crime in general.

“We should be concerned [when] homicides and shootings increase or spike. I think often times we’re looking for really simple answers to why those things are occurring,” said Loyola University Prof. David Olson. “The likelihood of violent crime among pretrial releases is extremely low.… And among those crimes of violence, very rarely do those involve crimes like homicide.”

Olson said the bail reforms did not cause an increase in violence in 2018 or 2019, and so it was illogical to think the policy change was “all of a sudden” driving an increase in gun violence this year.

Olson and his Loyola colleague, Prof. Don Stemen, authored the report, which looks at the effects of reforms in 2017 ordering judges to set affordable bond amounts to ensure people are not being held in jail just because they are poor. The reforms resulted in more people being released pre-trial without having to pay any sort of monetary bond. The researchers found that did not increase the likelihood that defendants would commit new crimes while awaiting trial.

In a statement, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who implemented the bail reforms, touted the report.

“This study confirms … that bail reform furthers the cause of justice and equality by releasing defendants not deemed a danger to any person or the public,” Evans said in a statement. “Defendants should not be sitting in jail awaiting trial simply because they lack the financial resources to ensure their release.”

According to the report, 17 percent of defendants had a new criminal case filed against them while on pretrial release. That percentage was the same before and after the 2017 bail reforms. Because the reforms meant more people being released pretrial, those unchanged percentages did result in an increase in the total number of people charged with new crimes while out awaiting trial. The study’s findings suggest the changes could mean an additional 200-300 new crimes per year allegedly committed by people released pretrial.

What we show is that the risk of new criminal activity is relatively low and the risk of new violent criminal activity is extremely low,” Stemen said.

The most common new charge for the alleged reoffenders was drug possession, followed by drug dealing and retail theft. Just 3 percent of people released allegedly committed a violent crime while out awaiting trial, according to the report.

“The only way to reduce that to zero would be to hold the other 97 [percent] … in jail pretrial,” Stemen said.

Olson and Stemen conducted their analysis by looking at a year’s-worth of Cook County bail decisions, six months before the policy change and six months after, and then tracking the defendants for a year after their pretrial release.

According to the report, 9,133 people were released pre-trial in the six months following the changes to bail. Of those, three were charged with first-degree murder, and five were charged with aggravated battery with a firearm - the charge most often used when a person is accused of a non-fatal shooting.

For comparison Chicago had 492 murders and 2,151 shootings in 2019, according to police.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.