The cash bond system in Cook County has long been a source of controversy, with activists arguing that the structure keeps poor low-level offenders behind bars ahead of their trial because they are unable to afford bond.
The chief county judge on Monday took a step toward the reform that such critics envision when he directed other bond-court judges to set bail amounts no higher than what a defendants "who pose no danger" can afford—effectively assuring the release of such defendants ahead of trial. The order, from Chief Judge Timothy Evans, takes effect on Sept. 18.
"Defendants should not be sitting in jail awaiting trial simply because they lack the financial resources to secure their release," Chief Judge Evans said in a statement. "If they are not deemed a danger to any person or the public, my order states that they will receive a bail they can afford."
The new order marks a turning point by requiring the consideration of defendants' financial status: "For the first time, court staff and judges will be required to inquire into the ability of a defendant to pay a bail amount," according to the Cook County Court.
Other avenues for pre-trial release that don't unduly burden those facing charges include individual-recognizance bonds and electronic monitoring, neither of which require money to be paid.
The order incorporates "pretrial risk assessments" that also consider the criminal histories of those who have been charged when assessing bail for low-level offenders.
"This order represents a dramatic improvement of our pretrial justice system in Cook County and thus our entire criminal justice system," said Sharlyn Grace, Senior Criminal Justice Policy Analyst at Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, in a statement. "No longer will access to money determine who awaits trial in jail and who awaits trial in the community. As a result, our courts will be fairer for all county residents."
Cook County has been taking gradual steps toward bond reform in recent months. State's Attorney Kim Foxx announced last month that prosecutors would recommending to judges that defendants charged with non-violent charges be released between arraignment and trial. Foxx said Evans' order "provides important guidance for the judiciary and the entire criminal justice system on the need to reduce our reliance on monetary bond."
"There is often no clear relationship between the posting of a cash bond and securing the safety of the community or the appearance of a defendant," she added.
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