A new lawsuit claims Cook County’s bond system violates the constitution.
The suit is the latest effort to change a system criticized for locking up the poor.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said more than 90 percent of the people in the jail are awaiting trial, most because they can’t afford bail.
“We’re seeing this in front of us all the time, where we have people in here who clearly don’t belong in the jail and the only thing that was holding them in here was the fact that they were poor,” Dart said.
According to Dart, on Friday 271 of the approximately 9,000 inmates needed $1,000 or less to get out, but couldn’t come up with the money.
When sheriff’s employees identify an inmate in that situation they reach out to the public defender and prosecutor to push to have the bail reduced. Dart said he wants to be able to skip that step and make the request to the judge himself.
That requires a change to state law, and state Rep. La Shawn Ford is trying to make it happen. Ford said he is wants lawmakers to make the change during the upcoming veto session.
“We’re gonna go to Springfield in November … because this is a cost savings to the state,” Ford said.
He said it’s just logical the sheriff should be able to weigh in on bond reductions.
“(The sheriff) meets the individuals everyday and … can determine whether or not a person is eligible or should be eligible for a bail reduction,” Ford said.
For Ford, this change is just one step in a long-term plan.
“My ultimate goal would be to eliminate the bail bonds for people in Illinois, but we have to first slow-walk this process and expose the fact that there are too many people who are in Cook County Jail for pre-trial detention,” Ford said.
On Monday, Ford sent out an online survey that asked if “cash bail” should be abolished. He said he wants public input to help bolster his push for major reform.
Ford said a lawsuit, filed by two inmates who challenge the constitutionality of the bond system, works “hand in hand” with prison reform efforts in Springfield.
That suit, filed Friday in Cook County court, seeks to represent all people locked up in the jail only because they can’t afford bail.
“For far too long, the bail practices in Cook County have been unconstitutional and grossly unfair, resulting in pre-ordained conclusions in criminal cases, and massively violating the liberty rights of presumed innocent arrestees in the county,” said attorney Matthew Piers, who represents the inmates. “Rules and laws and practices which discriminate … between those who have wealth and assets and those who don’t violate the substantive due process clause of the 14th amendment, as well as the equal protection clause.”
The lawsuit is asking a judge to declare the process unconstitutional, and issue an order releasing every inmate being held only for lack of bail money.
Ford, Dart and Piers all agree that keeping a person in jail before trial can cause long term damage.
“Statistically it is crystal clear that the biggest single determinant between people who have favorable outcomes … and people who have unfavorable outcomes … is whether or not they post pre-trial bail and are able to be released,” Piers said.
Ford said low-level offenders become “habitual criminals” because of pre-trial detention. He added that the current system doesn’t make sense for public safety either. That’s because people charged with gun crimes are actually more likely to be able to come up with bail money, than people charged with retail theft.
“The system that we have right now says—whether you’re a danger to society or not—if you have money, you can walk,” Ford said.
While Ford cheered the lawsuit, Dart is actually named as a defendant.
“I just am so puzzled. I’ve been a rather vocal advocate for years on this issue, and these folks have never picked up the phone to call me … instead they just drop lawsuits,” Dart said. “To have never even spoken to me shows just recklessness on their part, and honestly it’s truly not helpful, not helpful at all.”
Piers said Dart’s involvement is just a technicality. He said Dart is an ally in the bail battle, but because they are seeking a judge to order Dart to release the detainees, they had to name him in the suit.
But Dart said if Piers and his fellow attorneys had reached out to him, he would have shared data and “been ecstatic” to help in the fight to eliminate cash bonds.
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.