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.

Abby Lynn Klinkenberg July 25, 2017

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)

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. 

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

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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