PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday October 25th, 2016, 8:57pm

Local Advocates Push For Bail Reform As Cook County Faces Class-Action Lawsuit

With Cook County facing a lawsuit challenging its bail system, local community groups and attorneys gathered Tuesday to "demand alternatives to monetary bond" to help poor detainees.

Advocates pushing for reforms to Cook County's cash bail system spoke out Tuesday morning to "demand alternatives to monetary bond."

Gathering at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, local attorneys and community group members also discussed the class-action lawsuit filed on October 14 against Cook County. The lawsuit alleges that "excessive" bail amounts set by circuit court judges violate the rights of poor jail detainees.

"The bail bond system in Illinois has to be fixed," stressed the Rev. Charles Straight with The People's Lobby. "Far too many people are locked up simply because they cannot pay even small amounts of money."

Two jail detainees who are facing theft charges and cannot afford to pay bail are named as plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. They are suing five circuit court judges and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

The plaintiffs are being represented by attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern's law school as well as Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd. and the Civil Rights Corps.

"This is wealth discrimination with respect to the most critical right that all of us share in common: the right to be free," MacArthur Justice Center Executive Director Locke Bowman said of the Cook County bail system's impact on poor detainees. "It is a violation of the United States Constitution. We have filed a lawsuit that aims to stop this practice. We are seeking a declaration that it's wrong, that it's unconstitutional and that it must be ended."

"The remedy that we seek is that no person shall be confined in the Cook County Jail simply because he cannot pay his bond," Bowman added. "The bond must be set in an amount reasonable to ensure the individual's ability to pay and his appearance in court."

Cara Smith, the Cook County sheriff's chief policy officer, responded to the lawsuit in an interview with Progress Illinois.

"We were not surprised by the filing of the lawsuit. However, we were very surprised to be named as a defendant, given that Sheriff Dart has aggressively combated the injustices of our bail system for years in a number of ways in the county," she said.

The sheriff's office has asked to be dropped as a defendant in the lawsuit.

"We certainly feel we are much more valuable to the plaintiffs and their clients advocating alongside them than being a defendant," Smith said. "We expect we'd be dismissed, but we've requested that they do so voluntarily."

Individuals who say they were needlessly kept in Cook County Jail pending trial because they couldn't make bail addressed the media at Tuesday's press conference.

Lavette Mayes, 46, said she was detained for 14 months in Cook County Jail because she was unable to pay her $9,500 bail while awaiting trial. While she was detained after being arrested in March 2015, Mayes lost her job and missed school graduations for her two children, ages six and 15.

"It was devastating on my family and hard," she said.

Mayes later received assistance from the Chicago Community Bond Fund to post bail. Mayes, a resident of Chicago's South Shore community, eventually pleaded guilty to the aggravated battery charge she faced. The length of time she spent in pretrial detainment and electronic home monitoring exceeded her prison sentence by four months.

As of Monday, there were 298 people detained in Cook County Jail who needed $1,000 or less to bond out, Smith said. Dart has called for a change in Illinois law so that his office can request bail reductions for poor, non-violent detainees.

"Our bail statute in Illinois requires that bail not be oppressive," Smith said. "When we have just under 300 people who are in jail just because they don't have a relatively small amount of money, we think that's sort of the definition of oppressive."

Straight with The People's Lobby said his organization is working with state Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) and other Illinois lawmakers on crafting legislation to reform bail policies. Straight said the bill's introduction is expected in a few months.

"Our bill requires that courts release people on their own recognizance in most situations and replace pretrial incarceration with commonsense measures," he said.

Such measure, Straight said, include reminder phone calls for people when they're due in court, increased home monitoring and bus passes for low-income people to help them get to court.

The bail-reform supporters addressed the media one day after Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and county commissioners announced an upcoming public hearing on the issue of pretrial detention and bond court practices.

Sharlyn Grace with the Chicago Community Bond Fund said the public hearing, scheduled for November 17, is a positive development.

"We're excited that the county is taking steps to get more information out there, to examine the impact of the problem and some realistic alternatives, and to think about evidence-based policies and practices," she said.

Asked about the planned hearing, Smith said, "I don't really understand the goal."

"The disgraces and the injustices of our bail system are very well known," she explained. "I think it's a matter of bringing people together to address those problems."

For his part, Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans released a lengthy statement Monday after Cook County officials announced the hearing. He discussed the circuit court's procedures and its use of a "scientifically validated assessment tool" that was implemented last year and has "assisted the court in releasing more people pretrial."

The assessment tool, called the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), "analyzes objective data related to a defendant's criminal history and current charge to generate a risk-assessment score that reliably predicts whether a defendant will commit another crime, commit a violent crime, or fail to appear in court if he or she is released before trial," Evans said.

He added: "The process, administered by the court's pretrial services division, includes conducting the PSA risk assessment, an interview, and an exit interview in which the defendants are provided instructions about their responsibilities to comply with potential release conditions and are informed of the importance of contacting their pretrial officer and appearing at their next court date."

Implementation of the assessment program has led to an increase in I-bonds and electronic monitoring and a decrease in monetary bonds, Evans said, adding that "many of the lowest-risk inmates are being released before trial."

"For the first half of 2016, the overall pretrial-release rate for the lowest-risk defendants in non-violent, non-weapons cases was 94 percent," his statement reads. "That means that more than 9 out of every 10 of the lowest-risk defendants are not held in jail before their case is resolved, by trial or otherwise."

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