Cook County awards a big win for the bail reform movement with its recent order to limit bail money to how much a defendant can pay. (Jeremy Kohm / EyeEm / Getty)

Locked Up for Being Poor? Chicago Just Took a Big Step Forward in Bail Reform

Activists are lauding a new court order while continuing to push for the end of money bond.

BY Abby Lynn Klinkenberg

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Evans’ order lends further momentum to bail reform, which a number of states and counties have enacted in recent months.

Decarceration activists are lauding a groundbreaking new order issued by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans as a tentative victory in the fight to abolish money bond and pretrial detention. 

Illinois' Circuit Court of Cook County is the second largest unified court system in the United States. Evans' order prohibits the court from setting money bond, or bail, at an amount that exceeds what a defendant is able to pay. That’s expected to reduce the number of defendants who remain incarcerated for months—or even years—while they await trial, even though they pose no danger to the public.

At present, about 62 percent of those detained in Cook County Jail, some 4,000 people, “are being incarcerated pretrial for being poor,” according to Matthew McLoughlin, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF), which advocates for the end of money bond. CCBF says that longer periods of pretrial incarceration result in higher rates of conviction and longer sentences, in addition to lost employment, housing and other hardships for defendants eventually found innocent. 

CCBF raises bail money for defendants such as Naomi Freeman, a pregnant 23-year-old mother of two who was incarcerated from July to December 2015 because she couldn’t afford to pay a $35,000 bond. Freeman was charged with first-degree murder for what she says was an act of self-defense during an attack by an abusive partner. CCBF worked with a coalition of advocacy groups to secure Freeman’s release. While her case is still pending, she is able to remain with her children while she awaits trial. 

“Defendants should not be sitting in jail awaiting trial simply because they lack the financial resources to secure their release,” said Chief Judge Evans in a statement. “If they are not deemed a danger to any person or the public, my order states that they will receive a bail they can afford.” 

The court will also review all cases in which a person remains incarcerated for more than 7 days because of their inability to post monetary bail. The order will take effect later this year for felony cases, and at the start of 2018 for all cases.

Evans’ order lends further momentum to bail reform, which a number of states and counties have enacted in recent months. 

The focus on bail emerged out of the larger movement against mass incarceration, says Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of CCBF, as well as attorney and policy analyst for the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. “This moment … is certainly owed in part to Black Lives Matter and movement against the new Jim Crow,” she says. “This organizing has been happening along a larger trajectory over years but is being directed in a concentrated way on bail reform right now.”

Since its founding in 2015, CCBF has successfully bonded out 78 people, according to McLoughlin. The group focuses its efforts on low-income defendants of color, who are more likely than white defendants to receive a money bond. The larger goal of CCBF is to abolish money bond entirely due to its “severe negative consequences on the very things that help someone charged with a crime succeed: employment, stable housing, and strong family and community connections.” 

Next up, CCBF and other organizations are planning a court-watching initiative to ensure that Evans' order is being implemented. “While we celebrate this hard-fought win,” says McLoughlin, “we recognize that our movements must stay vigilant to ensure the new rule is fully enforced and no one is incarcerated because they are too poor to pay bond.”

Abby Lynn Klinkenberg is a summer 2017 editorial intern at In These Times.

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