No bail?

No bail?

The sheriff of Cook County has a big idea — that's not to say a good idea — about criminal justice reform.

A movement to reduce the population of jailed inmates awaiting trial appears to be sweeping the country, and it's driven by well-motivated individuals consumed by the concept of fairness.

But as this issue receives more and more public attention, it's important to remember that the road to the nether regions often is paved with good intentions.

The saying seems particularly appropriate considering that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart this week proposed abolishing the state's cash-bond system on the grounds that it's unfair to defendants accused of minor crimes who can't raise the money necessary to post bail and be released from jail.

Suffice it to say, Dart's proposal is problematic, at best. It's hard to imagine a majority of legislators willing to put their names and political futures behind a proposal that seems, especially at first glance, extremely permissive. It seems made to order for those 30-second political radio and TV commercials accusing incumbent legislators of being soft on crime.

Despite that, however, it is a serious proposal that deserves respectful consideration.

Sheriff Dart cited his own jail as an example of the problem he's trying to address.

"Today we have about 200 people who need $1,000 or less to post bond. Many of them have been in jail for some time. For them, there is no way of avoiding the 'oppressive' nature of the bond that has been set," said Cara Smith, an aide to Dart.

Dart's line of thinking is this — that $1,000 is a fairly nominal amount of money to require for bond. Consequently, anyone jailed because of a financial inability to come up with that sum ought to be released without being required to post any cash bail.

What Dart is proposing is a different manner of approaching the bond issue.

Under state law, judges set bail for individuals based on the charges filed against them as well as their criminal backgrounds, community and family ties and employment status. Defendants typically pay 10 percent of the bond to win pre-trial release.

Those inmates Dart said can't come up with $1,000 have $10,000 bonds.

In some cases, judges release defendants on their own recognizance, meaning no payment is required.

Setting a bond is aimed at providing a financial incentive for the defendant to comply with court-ordered conditions while awaiting trial and to show up when the trial begins. It's forfeited if the defendant does not show up.

Dart proposes that judges should decide whether defendants should either be released or not released because of background information provided to the court by judicial staffers.

Frankly, that's not too much different from what occurs now. However, Dart said his approach would require a more extensive background check, something on the order of what happens in federal court.

It is, however, important to note that federal courts do not have near the criminal court traffic as their counterparts in state court. Heavy-volume courtrooms could find themselves swamped with demands for defendant background checks.

In the end, however, it would come down to a judgment call by the jurist making the bond or no-bond decision. It's easy to imagine people second-guessing a no-bond decision, just as Sheriff Dart is second-guessing the $10,000 bonds that cause defendants to be held in his jail.

One partial solution to the problem Dart cites is for jailed defendants to file motions asking the judge to consider setting a lower bond or a release on recognizance. No one likes to see a defendant awaiting trial on less serious charges be held for indefinite periods of time while awaiting their day in court.

That's why Dart supported legislation earlier this year to allow sheriffs to seek a reduction in bail. Currently, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers are the only ones who can ask for reconsideration of the bond question.

The issue is a complicated one that affects more than public safety. Bonds also have unofficial uses in addition to those cited by statute. They often are used by defendants to pay private lawyers or fines and court costs once a case is concluded.

If no bonds were posted, how would those obligations be met?

Sheriff Dart has raised an important question, one already under study by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Court as well as Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman. In concert with the Pretrial Justice Institute, they're studying how to develop better standards to deal with bond questions.

The current bond system has been in place for a long time, and, in that context, there's nothing wrong with revisiting the issue. While the old ways are often the best ways, they're not always.

If the current debate results in proposals to help judges make better bond decisions, that would be great. If not, at least the public can be assured that the issue received a thorough examination.

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Local Yocal wrote on November 16, 2016 at 9:11 am
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Bonds also have unofficial uses in addition to those cited by statute. They often are used by defendants to pay private lawyers or fines and court costs once a case is concluded. If no bonds were posted, how would those obligations be met?

This is exactly what the jail is being used for in Champaign County: a leveraging tool to extract payment from defendants for the incredible amounts charged by the state and county to even have a criminal case. It's also what tilts justice. Have money, walk. Have no money, jail.