The Fight to #EndMoneyBail at Cook County Jail in Chicago


Every year, some 60,000 people pass through Cook County Jail. Located in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and stretching eleven city blocks, it is the largest single-site jail in the United States. On any given day, more than 7,000 people are caged inside Cook County Jail and more than 2,000 more are incarcerated in their homes via electronic monitoring. Ninety-five percent of the people locked up at Cook County Jail are there pretrial – punished without having been convicted of a crime. At least two thirds of those people are only there because they can’t afford to post a monetary bond.

If someone has had a bond set, that means that person has been cleared for release, and the only thing keeping them incarcerated is the fact they’re too poor to post bond. Just a few days of pretrial incarceration can severely impact the rest of a person’s life. Locking people up makes them lose their jobs, housing, and sometimes even the custody of their children.  Incarcerating people pretrial also increases the likelihood that they will be convicted by a judge or jury or plead guilty. People incarcerated pretrial also receive longer sentences than people who are free. Since inability to pay a monetary bond is the main cause of pretrial incarceration, our current system is punishing people for being poor.

It is also important to note that money bond, like all incarceration, is a racialized system of control that disproportionately impacts people of color and particularly Black people. Despite the fact that Black people comprise only 25% of Cook County’s population, they make up 73% of the people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. Nationally, Black people accused of a crime are the least likely to receive a non-financial release and the least likely to be able to post a money bond if given one. The continued use of monetary bond guarantees that racism and disparate treatment remain central parts of our criminal legal system.

On September 18th, a general order by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans aimed at stopping judges from setting bonds that people can’t pay, went into effect for those charged with felonies. The order states that no one can be incarcerated in Cook County simply because they can’t afford bond. In theory, bond is supposed to be set in an amount a person can afford. (The historical idea behind money bail (no longer backed up by evidence) is that putting up money assures that people will come back to court – i.e., it’s supposed to be a way to release people, not lock them up. A quick glance at jails around the country makes it abundantly clear that this is no longer how bail functions. In most jurisdictions, judges set bail at rates people can’t afford, pretending they are released while actually licking them up and effectively circumventing the constitution’s limits on punishment before trial. If Judge Evans’ order is implemented as written, it could potentially reduce Cook County’s jail population by more than fifty percent.

A wide array of community and faith groups, brought together by the Coalition to End Money Bond, were in court to observe the first week of the order’s implementation. The results were mixed: In comparison to August, fewer bonds were set at amounts higher than what people said they could afford, but a large number of people were given punitive pre-trial conditions such as electronic monitoring. In addition to being able to set bond, bond court judges also have the ability to set conditions of pretrial release. These conditions can include home confinement, curfews, and/or drug testing. While these are less extreme than incarceration in jail, we believe such conditions still punish people by restricting their liberty before they’ve even been convicted of a crime.

Chief Judge Evans’ order states that anyone incarcerated because they cannot afford their bond is entitled to a bond review within seven days. Advocates will also be watching preliminary courtrooms this week to see if people who were given bonds they could not pay last week are given the promised review and are released on I-bond or that their bond is reduced to an amount that they can pay. While most local press coverage has focused on the changes happening in central bond court, the biggest question that remains is what will happen to the approximately 4,000 people currently locked up in Cook County Jail on bonds set before September 18th. So far, there has been no indication that a mass review of their bonds will occur. Just last week, CCBF posted bond for someone who had been locked up for nearly two months on a $5,000 bond they couldn’t pay. Additionally, we have received more than 65 calls in the last two weeks from people who are locked up in Cook County Jail with bonds they can’t pay. If Chief Judge Evans is serious about reforming Cook County’s bond system, something must be done for the thousands of people being caged at 26th and California simply for being poor.

During the first week of the order’s implementation Coalition court watchers reported an uneven start for the first week of the order’s implementation. Prior to last week, the average bond hearing in Cook County was around 110 seconds, making this week’s 4-minute bond hearings a marked improvement. While judges were spending more time setting bond, however, at least one of the judges in bond court this week—Judge Clancy—still set 17 bonds in amounts higher than what people could afford to pay. Later in the week as Judge Lyke took the bench, court watchers reported a pronounced improvement, with most people being given I-bonds or bonds they could afford. On Friday, September 22nd, Judge Lyke set no D-bonds at all, but held at least 9 people without bond.

For a second week in a row judges in Central Bond Court continued to disregard parts of Judge Evans’ order.  Since the order went into effect on September 18th, more than 40 bonds have been set above amounts people said they could afford and there has been an increase in the use of punitive pretrial conditions such as electronic monitoring and 24 hour curfews. In the past week alone, at least 24 bonds were set in amounts higher than what people said they could pay, according to observers and court records. At least 31 bonds included electronic monitoring. Aside from observing the judge’s’ initial decisions and adherence to the order, court watchers are collecting data to better understand trends in bond-setting practices as judges move away from monetary bonds and towards other conditions of pretrial release. Notable, all four judges observed in Central Bond Court so far have set bonds in amounts higher than people can pay, leaving advocates concerned about how strictly the order will be followed moving forward.

This week, we also tracked whether defendants who were not able to post a monetary bond within seven days were given a review hearing as required by the order. While Evans’ order stipulates that those incarcerated because they cannot afford their bond be given a review within seven days of their initial bail decision, this review was ineffective for most people. In response to public defenders’ requests for review of unpaid money bonds, judges in the preliminary hearing courtrooms merely entered and continued the motions, delaying the review of bond for another 2-3 weeks. Only three people with money bonds set in amounts higher than they could pay during week one under the new order were granted a review within seven days of having their bond set.

Judge Evan’s order clearly states that anyone held for more than seven days because they cannot afford to post bond is supposed to get a review of that bond and be released on a I-bond or have their bond set at a rate which they can pay. This also extends to the 4,000 people being held at Cook County Jail because they can’t post bond. Every last one of those people is owed a review of their bond, and judges refusing to give these reviews are acting with flagrant disregard to people’s rights. There has still been no indication that a mass review of their bonds will occur.

While we are pleased to see the number of people receiving unpayable D-bonds declining, we are greatly disturbed to see judges that were put on the bench to implement this order continuing to set monetary bonds in amounts designed to unconstitutionally detain legally innocent people. We are very concerned that many judges in Cook County are not fully implementing the Chief Judge’s order, and that there has been no transparency about the order’s impact nor about plans to improve implementation.

Chicago Community Bond Fund and our allies in the Coalition to End Money Bond will continue to send court observers to Central Bond Court to ensure Chief Judge Evans’ order is implemented fully. The Coalition will also be releasing a report in November that summarizes data collected from court observation that began in August 2017. The report will be used as a tool to build awareness around the use of money bond in Cook County and advocate for an end to money bond and pretrial detention.

Pretrial incarceration provides one foundation for the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration. By ending money bond, we have the power to not only dramatically reduce the number of people being incarcerated pretrial but also the number of people being pushed into U.S. prisons. This moment, in which transformative bail reform is truly possible, has been made possible by Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements that have forced a re-examination of our racist prisons and jails. Tearing this white supremacist system of incarceration and surveillance down must begin at its entry point: county jails.

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