These Community Activists Won Bail Reform. Now They Have To Force Judges To Comply.

Thousands of people still sit in Chicago’s Cook County Jail because they are too poor to afford bail.

Alex V. Hernandez April 17, 2018

Lavette Mayes spent 14 months in pretrial detention in Cook County Jail, and is an organizer with the Coalition To End Money Bond. (Sebastian Hidalgo)

CHICA­GO — Lavette Mayes remem­bers there were about 30 oth­ers lined up in a hall­way, with their hands behind their back. One by one, they were brought before a judge. Mayes had been arrest­ed in 2015 after an alter­ca­tion with her 67-year-old moth­er-in-law that left both hospitalized.

“We don’t want other families to go through this,” says Irene Romulo, an organizer with the coalition.

Mayes, a 48-year-old moth­er of two whose mar­riage was unrav­el­ing, says she act­ed in self-defense.

I’d nev­er been arrest­ed a day in my life. I’d only seen [bond court] on TV.”

Of her bond hear­ing, she says, I was just shocked at the amount of time. It felt like I was at some kind of auc­tion, it just went by so fast.”

With­in 30 sec­onds she was ordered held on $250,000 detain­er bond, which meant she had to pay 10 per­cent down— $25,000 — to go home with elec­tron­ic monitoring.

Unable to pay, Mayes spent the next 14 months in pre­tri­al deten­tion at Cook Coun­ty Jail. Under the law, Mayes was pre­sumed inno­cent. Yet while await­ing her day in court, she near­ly lost her chil­dren in divorce pro­ceed­ings, and her busi­ness, a schoolvan trans­port ser­vice, fell apart as her vans were repos­sessed. She also burned through her $10,000 in savings.

It just took a huge toll on my fam­i­ly,” says Mayes.

After a long fight, Mayes’ bond pay­ment was reduced to $9,500.

With assis­tance from the Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty Bond Fund (CCBF), her fam­i­ly was able to pay it. She remained under house arrest until tak­ing a plea deal Oct. 5, 2016. The CCBF rais­es mon­ey to pay bonds for those, such as Mayes, who can’t afford to. It’s one of 12 groups that make up the Coali­tion To End Mon­ey Bond, which formed in 2016 to address the sys­temic flaws in Cook County’s pre­tri­al sys­tem. Cook Coun­ty Jail holds approx­i­mate­ly 7,500 peo­ple, more than 90 per­cent of whom are pre­tri­al, far above the nation­al aver­age of 67 percent.

We don’t want oth­er fam­i­lies to go through this,” says Irene Romu­lo, an orga­niz­er with the coalition.

The coali­tion con­vinced the county’s Chief Cir­cuit Court Judge Tim­o­thy Evans to order his judges to ensure the defen­dant has the present abil­i­ty to pay the amount nec­es­sary to secure his or her release on bail.”

Defen­dants should not be sit­ting in jail await­ing tri­al sim­ply because they lack the finan­cial resources to secure their release,” Evans said. 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 order went into effect Sept. 182017.

The coali­tion had 70 vol­un­teers attend bond court in August and Sep­tem­ber 2017, before and after the order’s imple­men­ta­tion, dili­gent­ly com­pil­ing data.

On Feb­ru­ary 27, they released their find­ings: Fol­low­ing Evans’ order, the rate of pre­tri­al releas­es near­ly dou­bled and the use of mon­e­tary bond dropped by half.

But the vol­un­teers also not­ed a lack of over­sight and account­abil­i­ty,” and that some judges are still assign­ing high bails.

Anoth­er obsta­cle to reform is Cook Coun­ty Sher­iff Tom Dart, who has said his staff is over­whelmed by the hun­dreds of vio­lent offend­ers” charged with gun crimes who have been released from his jail with elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing as a result of Evans’ order.

Mov­ing for­ward, my office will close­ly scru­ti­nize all indi­vid­u­als who are assigned to[electronic mon­i­tor­ing] by care­ful­ly review­ing their charges and crim­i­nal his­to­ries,” Dart wrote. Those who are deemed to be too high a secu­ri­ty risk to be in the com­mu­ni­ty will be referred back to the court for fur­ther evaluation.”

Now, some peo­ple are detained on admin­is­tra­tive review” even after bond pay­ment. Dart is now sub­ject to a fed­er­al class action law­suit filed on behalf of these detainees Feb­ru­ary 26.

Ulti­mate­ly, the coali­tion wants to see an end to mon­ey bond altogether.

Alex V. Her­nan­dez is orig­i­nal­ly from Chica­go and has bylines in the Chica­go Tri­bune, Chica­go Read­er, Chica­go Mag­a­zine, City Bureau, In These Times and 90 Days, 90 Voic­es. He was also a 2017 Peter Lis­agor Watch­dog Award final­ist for his work on an inter­ac­tive Chica­go Reporter data­base that shows where, how and when police mis­con­duct hap­pens in the city of Chica­go. He tweets at @AVHndz.
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