CHICAGO – In a report released today, the Civic Federation shared its findings from a court observation study of felony bond court hearings in Cook County. The study was conducted in collaboration with the League of Women Voters of Cook County over the course of approximately eight weeks during summer 2022. The study’s findings present new information on how cash bail is currently being used in Cook County ahead of pretrial reforms slated to take effect January 1, 2023 through Public Act 101-652, otherwise known as the SAFE-T Act. The report presents snapshot in time, documenting current Cook County bond court processes and outcomes. It is intended to help educate public officials and the general public and inform a statewide debate on the issue of cash bail and the upcoming changes to the pretrial release process in Illinois.
“Given the competing narratives between public officials, there has been a lack of clarity about the role of cash bail in the context of violent crime in Chicago and larger pretrial reforms throughout Illinois,” said Civic Federation president Laurence Msall. “The Civic Federation hopes this study sheds additional light on the use of cash bail and fills in some gaps in data not already made available by the Circuit Court.”
Based on data collected from 1,052 individual felony bond hearings, court watchers found that despite Cook County’s initial move away from money bond following pretrial reforms enacted in 2017, cash bail payments are still required in the majority of cases, or in 67% of the cases observed. Another 27% of people were ordered to be released on I-Bonds, which do not require posting money for release. And in 6% of cases, defendants were ordered to be held in detention with no bail option. The reduced number of I-Bonds matches data from the Chief Judge’s pretrial data dashboards showing a decrease in I-Bonds and an increase in cash bonds since the initial 2017 bond court reforms.
Further, the report found that despite presumptions toward non-monetary release and consideration of the defendant’s ability to pay for release in Illinois statute and Cook County policy, judges ordered a dollar amount above what the defendant or their family indicated they could afford to pay in 72% of cases where the person was ordered to pay cash bail. The median dollar amount observed that would be needed to post for release was $1,000.
Court observers additionally collected data on charges among people appearing in bond court. The most frequent charge was for gun possession (45% of cases observed), followed by drug possession (14%) and drug sales (9%). Despite narratives to the contrary, people accused of murder were generally ordered to be held in jail without bail. Court watchers also observed that, despite a common perception that many violent offenders in Cook County are released without being required to pay cash bail, cash bail was frequently used in cases involving “person” felonies. However, people charged with non-violent crimes, such as drug sales or possession or property charges, were generally released on recognizance or a lower cash bond.
The study finds that 12% of defendants in the data sample who appeared in bond court were in violation of their bail on pending pretrial cases. Another 9% of cases had violated probation or parole. The vast majority of these cases involved nonviolent offenses, with gun possession as the most frequent top charge for new arrests, followed by drug possession and drug sales. More serious person-related crimes were less frequent. Six people who had violated bail were charged with murder.
The report further details special conditions judges can place on defendants with or without setting cash bail, such as electronic monitoring and pretrial supervision. Additionally, the analysis finds that there is wide variance between the release recommendations made based on Cook County’s pretrial risk assessment tool and the conditions that judges actually ordered.
Anticipating that the January 2023 elimination of cash bail in Illinois will reshape the way bond hearings are held in Cook County, impacting the number of people detained or released pretrial in ways that are not yet known, the Civic Federation and League of Women Voters urge the Cook County Circuit Court to produce detailed data on the impact of the new law once it goes into effect. The two organizations also plan to monitor future pretrial processes in Cook County.
“The level of interest and the need for data about pretrial courts and how it is impacting whether people are released from jail pretrial or not could not be higher,” Msall said. “Tracking the outcomes of new pretrial processes once they take effect in January, not just in Cook County but across Illinois, will be critical to helping system stakeholders and the public understand how the system is impacting criminal defendants, community safety and the courts and jail systems around the State.”