We won’t know if bail reform is working until the public has the data
By David Baltmanis and Alexandra K. Block
David Baltmanis, a partner at Miner, Barnhill & Galland P.C., is a member of the Board of Governors of the Chicago Lawyers Council, a public-interest bar association. Alexandra K. Block, a partner at Miller Shakman & Beem LLP, is co-chair of the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee for the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and is also on the Chicago Council of Lawyers’ board. They write to call for more transparency on the circuit court’s bond process.
Last summer, Cook County Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans issued an order directing judges to set monetary bonds only in amounts that people can pay. The order was designed to bring judicial practice in line with state law and constitutional requirements. By December, the number of people in Cook County Jail dropped below 6,000 for the first time since 1989. This saves substantial money, as it costs $126 per person per day to jail a defendant. Since the new order took effect, the use of monetary bonds has decreased by half, and more people who have not been convicted of any crime are being released pretrial.
This progress is cause for celebration, but beyond the most basic information about the number of people in jail, it remains difficult to evaluate the impact of Evans’ order and other reforms. Cook County simply doesn’t have sufficient publicly available data to assess the effects and benefits of bond reform.
This lack of data drove the Coalition to End Money Bond, a collection of community-based and policy organizations including Chicago Appleseed and Chicago Council of Lawyers, to train more than 100 volunteers to observe bond court last summer. These community members devoted hundreds of hours to watching thousands of bond court hearings. This week, they released a comprehensive report on their observations and analysis. This community effort has produced the most robust publicly available dataset about bail and jail in Cook County.
The report shows a decrease in the use of money bond, but reveals the need for further reform and additional information. Among its findings are that the rate personal recognizance bonds increased from 25 percent to 51 percent after the order was issued, and the rate of money bonds decreased from 48 percent to 23 percent. Still, nearly half of all the money bonds issued were unaffordable — and therefore unconstitutional. Even more disturbing, bond court decisions varied extremely widely between individual judges. Two out of six bond court judges largely ignored the chief judge’s order. The report thus demonstrates that while considerable strides have been made in ensuring defendants are not put in the Cook County Jail simply as a consequence of poverty, there is much progress yet to be made.
Furthermore, since the initial jail population decrease in December, the number of people in Cook County Jail has actually risen and remained steady at around 6,100 for the last two months. There is no explanation for this plateau, especially when approximately 3,000 people are still incarcerated only because they cannot afford to pay a bond.
We need answers to a number of questions: Why is anyone still in jail for inability to pay a bond? What charges are these people detained for, and what are their risk scores and criminal histories? For various categories of charges, what amounts of money bond are being set compared to the amounts defendants are able to afford? Of those released without bond, what percentage fail to appear for court dates and what percentage commit new crimes? What are the comparable statistics for those released on money bond? For those on electronic monitoring?
Evaluating what is happening in our criminal justice system shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t be up to community volunteers. Cook County residents deserve increased transparency regarding bail practices and the jail population to evaluate if reform efforts are working. Chicago Appleseed and Chicago Council of Lawyers join the Civic Federation in calling for open data on pretrial practices that will allow us to effectively chart our path forward.