Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart called today for an end to a dangerous and unjust bail system that allows violent people to pay their way to freedom while locking up the indigent and mentally ill simply because they don’t have cash.
“With violent crime skyrocketing, the Cook County Jail is still largely a warehouse for the poor and mentally ill,” Dart said. “We need to fundamentally change this system so that those who pose a risk to the community are locked up pending trial and those who are simply poor or mentally ill get the help they really need.”
The unfair bond system undermines public safety because those with access to money can pay their bail and gain freedom, sometimes despite their potential threat to the community. Meanwhile, those who don’t have money can spend months in jail on petty criminal charges.
Dart highlighted several cases to illustrate the public impact.
In April, Kevin Lenoir, 23, was able to post $10,500 bail to get out of jail while he faced a gun charge and a probation violation on a previous drug conviction. Just a few months after his release, authorities say he shot up to 20 bullets at three people in front of his house, killing one man. Police said they recovered an AK-47 in a book bag from Lenoir’s roof. Lenoir is now in jail facing murder charges.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Foggie, 53, homeless and a wheelchair user, spent 414 days in jail on a retail theft case after he was arrested trying to push a grocery cart with some food out of the store.
“This doesn’t make any sense. A pay-for-freedom model hurts public safety and makes our criminal justice system fundamentally unfair from the start,” Dart said.
Dart proposed the state move toward a system like the one used in Washington, D.C., which involves intensive and thoughtful background checks to inform judges so they can keep those deemed a danger to the community locked up while providing intensive services and supervision in the community to those who do not pose a risk.
Earlier this year, the Sheriff’s office studied 30 days of bond court outcomes to examine the impact of the system. The research found that, for those who were given a cash bond, a quarter of accused gun offenders were able to pay bail – usually several thousand dollars – within a month to gain freedom pending trial. But only 4 percent of those given a cash bond on a retail theft charge were able to pay for their freedom in the same time span.
Dart acknowledged that reforming the bond system in Cook County will likely take years. It will require speedier trials for those locked up while utilizing effective mental health and social services for those in the community. However, the proposal promises to lead to fewer pre-trial individuals in custody at Cook County Jail, reducing what taxpayers have to spend on pre-trial incarceration.
In Washington D.C., which adopted the model in the early 1990s, 85 percent of all pre-trial criminal defendants are released to the community with some sort of supervision and 89 percent of those are not re-arrested while their cases are pending. Foundational to the D.C. system is a robust Pre-trial Services Agency and a strict speedy trial provision.
Dart thanked his fellow public servants in the criminal justice system, specifically Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Public Defender Amy Campanelli, Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Clerk Dorothy Brown, for working collaboratively toward a more just and safer system. He said forthcoming hearings by the County Board on the bond system should serve as a guide on how to move forward toward reducing the significant role wealth plays in the system.
As this movement progresses, Dart will continue to work to make the criminal justice system safer and more fair.
Dart also announced Tuesday that his office is launching the Hardship Project, a dedicated initiative to address the number of individuals stuck in Cook County Jail on low-level charges simply because they can’t afford to pay low-level bonds of $1,000 or less. As of Nov. 14, there were 185 such individuals and the number will be updated daily on the Sheriff’s Web site. The office is dedicating a public email address – email@example.com, for compassionate individuals who are interested in helping people in this category.