Courts busy after bond law changes

Courts busy after bond law changes

URBANA — As of Jan. 1, there's added activity in the normally busy daily arraignment court hearings in Champaign County.

Thanks to the Bail Reform Act of 2017, signed into law in June, people arrested for certain low-level crimes who can't post bond right away get a "second look" bail hearing.

The idea is to prevent people charged with nonviolent Class A, B and C misdemeanors, and some Class 3 and 4 felonies, from being locked up too long because they can't afford to post bond.

"Bail reform is legislation designed for Cook County, and the rest of us have to say, 'OK, OK,'" said Champaign County Presiding Judge Tom Difanis.

A Chicago Tribune story published in June, when the law was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, said the legislation reflected a general consensus among criminal justice advocates, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx — that the state's cash bail system is unfair to poor people.

For example, the story cited 2015 numbers from Dart that showed more than 1,000 inmates in his jail had served more time in custody than they were ultimately sentenced to because of their inability to post bail.

Difanis noted that laws sometimes get passed affecting the whole state to serve the interests of Cook County.

"It fixes problems we don't have," said Difanis, noting that the Urbana jail population recently has been as low as 130. "We have a capacity of over 300."

For instance, the law calls for a lawyer to be present for defendants at bail hearings. That has been the practice for several decades in Champaign County but apparently not in some Illinois counties. Even if a person wants time to hire his own attorney, a public defender will be temporarily appointed to argue bond for him.

Difanis contends — and jail administrator Capt. Karee Voges agrees — that Champaign County judges usually set reasonable bonds from the get-go so that defendants without means can be released soon after arrest. Judges are painfully aware that Sheriff Dan Walsh doesn't want taxpayers incurring the expense and potential liability of housing a shoplifter alongside an accused murderer.

Bonds range from recognizance — that is, just signing a promise to return to court — to a dollar figure. Defendants pay 10 percent of the monetary bond set for the privilege of being free until their case can be resolved.

Judge John Kennedy is assigned to arraignment court, where arrestees have their first contact with a judge, typically within 24 hours of arrest.

Kennedy listens to a prosecutor's brief synopsis of what the person is accused of, his or her criminal background and his or her history of showing up for court. He then hears from the defense attorney about the person's ability to pay and ties to the community.

Based on that combination of facts, the judge sets a figure that he believes is enough to guarantee the person will return to court for future hearings.

While the law dictates a second hearing within seven calendar days, Kennedy sets them for the next day, with the exception of Mondays, which are typically heavy arraignment days after the weekend.

"The point of this is supposed to be, number one, that they can bring to the court's attention information they may not have had" at the first court appearance, Kennedy said. "And secondly, the attorney can point out that a defendant hasn't posted bail. That's something the court is supposed to consider."

The law created two categories of offenses. Category A includes murder, Class X, 1 and 2 felonies as well as violent misdemeanors. Category B encompasses business, petty offenses, misdemeanors and Class 3 and 4 felonies that are not violent.

It's the Category B offenders getting the second-look hearings. Those who still can't make bond after a judge's review have an added chance of release. The law provides that they receive credit of $30 per day served against their total bail, not the 10 percent required for release.

Voges said that when the law took effect, there was no help from the state in setting up a mechanism to track those cases.

"It was chaotic because there is no computer program to manage this. We had to make up our own way," she said, adding that she personally updates those figures daily with an Excel spreadsheet.

But Voges isn't complaining because the number of Category B offenders unable to post bond has been fairly low. Since the first of the year, only nine people have been released due to the $30 daily credit on their bond, and the person who sat in jail the longest endured only four days.

"It hasn't been that bad, nothing compared to some of the counties I've talked to. Sangamon was tracking more than 40," Voges said.

The reason it hasn't been higher in Champaign County, she said, is that local police usually use great discretion in deciding whether to arrest a Category B offender or just give that person a notice to appear in court at a later date.

"Then you have judges that use common sense to decide to let these people out in the first place (on recognizance)," she said.

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locavore wrote on February 12, 2018 at 8:02 am

Okay, Journalism 101: Don't ask administrators with critical care responsibilities if they think things are fair and going okay. For example: "Difanis contends -- and jail administrator Capt. Karee Voges agrees -- that Champaign County judges usually set reasonable bonds from the get-go."

Why does that quote not mean anything? Because if county administrators with critical care responsibilities were ever to imply that things are NOT fair, that quote would be used forever after by every attorney filing suit against Champaign County on behalf of someone who experienced poor treatment or abuse while at the jail. Administrators with critical care responsibilities are NEVER in a position to comment candidly in public about their own performance.

What we needed here was an independent voice that's been tracking the issue of bail amounts, legislative reforrm, and jail populations, and since there are many such groups and individuals to choose from, both locally and statewide, I chalk this up to lazy reporting.

Also, while we're on the subject -- 130 beds occupied in an institution that holds 300? And the N-G is STILL asking political candidates their opinions about jail expansion? Amazing.

rsp wrote on February 12, 2018 at 9:02 am

At one moment in time the jail population was 130 people. Today it's 160. It goes up and down. Some people can't be in the same cell together. Cells are in blocks. Some can't be in the same block. So they have to keep people separated and then there is the problem of health needs. They aren't wanting to expand the jail as much as to make it more workable.

You aren't looking for an "independent" voice to give an opinion, you are looking for an advocate to fight the good fight. The reason the population is so low is so many are released the same day they are arrested. There was a time when the jail was so full people were sleeping on the floor.

Local Yocal wrote on February 12, 2018 at 1:02 pm
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The argument to expanding the satellite jail has been changed to say mental health treatment will be in the jail and in an isolation, cinder block cell. As if that ever improved someone's mental condition.

Difanis acts as if 130 has been the jail population for a number of years when really it's just an all-time low. Until recently, the cities were using the jail to leverage unpaid municipal ordinance fines and generally, officer discretion sides with taking someone to jail. The county's racial justice task force cited the need for the elimination of cash bail and the ability of defendants to prove financial hardship to be forgiven fines and fees altogether. This second look is only a small step in the right direction.