The Cook County Jail population has dipped below 5,000 for only the second time in nearly four decades, a drop experts are linking to Illinois’ historic elimination of cash bail on Sept. 18.
The jail had 4,980 detainees as of Tuesday, according to Sheriff Tom Dart’s office, and had even fewer over the weekend. The only time since the mid-1980s that the jail’s population was smaller was a 141-day stretch of 2020 as officials scrambled to combat a COVID-19 outbreak inside the facility.
“We’re always pleased to see that there are fewer people in cages,” said Sarah Staudt, an attorney with the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, which helped forge the bail measure. “We expect to see some fluctuation in [the jail population size] going forward. But we hope that the courts and prosecutors and everyone else involved stay committed to the law and to applying the law correctly, so that we can see this trend continue.”
WBEZ reached out to several law enforcement groups and agencies for comment on the jail population drop, but most did not respond. Previously, some of those groups have predicted that many arrestees released due to cash bail’s elimination would find new victims.
The bail measure, dubbed the Pretrial Fairness Act by supporters, bars detention of defendants unless they are deemed to pose a significant safety or flight risk. The law made Illinois the first U.S. state to remove money from decisions on whether to jail defendants ahead of their trial.
Researchers tracking the law’s effects suspect much of the jail population shrinkage owes to quicker release of defendants who formerly would have spent days or weeks coming up with their bond money.
“Previously, if you were charged with felony drug possession or a felony theft charge, you could be held in jail until you posted your bond,” Loyola University Chicago criminologist David Olson said. “Now, none of those individuals can be held” unless the incident took place while they were on probation, parole or pretrial release for another crime.
The jail population decline began more than a month before the law took effect Sept. 18, according to a WBEZ analysis of daily jail-detainee numbers from the sheriff’s office. The population kept dwindling at a time of year the jail is usually swelling with inmates, the analysis found. The drop accelerated once cash bail was officially eliminated.
Since the first week of August, the facility’s population has dropped 10.4%.
Olson, co-director of Loyola’s Center for Criminal Justice, said the shrinkage ahead of cash bail’s elimination owes to judges “already starting to take the law into consideration.”
Olson and other experts said it’s unclear how much more the jail population will decline. They said it’s possible the numbers will soon hit bottom and begin creeping back up.
“The two things that explain jail populations are how many people are admitted and how long they stay,” Olson said. “It’s likely, under the Pretrial Fairness Act, we’re going to see fewer people admitted to jail.”
The question, Olson said, is whether those who are detained remain locked up longer “because there is no mechanism to post bond anymore.”
To keep a defendant locked up ahead of trial, according to the law, the judge at each hearing in the case must find that the continued detention is “necessary to avoid a real and present threat to the safety of any person or persons or the community … or to prevent the defendant’s willful flight from prosecution.”
Olson said the sorts of defendants who could end up in jail longer include those charged with domestic battery: “Historically, it was about a 50-50 chance as to whether those defendants would be required to post money. But when they had to post money, they usually did so in a relatively brief period of time.”
If the domestic battery defendants who once were able to bond out quickly now remain in jail, Olson said, the jail population could increase again.
Another type of defendant who could spend longer in jail, Olson said, are those charged with illegal weapons possession.
“Many of them involve individuals that have no prior convictions,” he said, “so it’ll be an interesting pattern to see if they’re held or if they’re released.”
Olson, who has observed several Cook County detention hearings since cash bail ended, said judges so far seem to be “considering all the aspects that the law envisions about the individual — what risks they pose to public safety, the nature of their criminal history, if they have histories of violence and things like that.”
Cook County is not the only Illinois locality whose jail is shedding detainees along with cash bail’s elimination. The Lake County Adult Corrections Facility in north suburban Waukegan has seen a sharp population decline.
Supporters of the law ending cash bail feared judges would substitute electronic monitoring for jail detention but, so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening in Cook County, according to a WBEZ analysis of data from the offices of the sheriff and Chief Judge Timothy Evans. As of Friday, the number of electronically monitored defendants had increased just 0.6% since early August.
Staudt said she hopes that means “judges understand that electronic monitoring is not an acceptable alternative to jail.”
The drop in the Cook County Jail population is part of a long-term trend. Since 2010, that population has been cut roughly in half, data show.