Community organizer Ethan Viets-VanLear with A Just Harvest speaks at the release of the 2018 Court Watching Report (Kiran Misra)

At a presentation held last month at the Grace Place Episcopal Church in Printer’s Row, the Coalition to End Money Bond released the most recent results of its community court-watching initiative. Their efforts tracked the implementation of an order, issued by Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans, that bond court judges set more affordable bonds for legally innocent pretrial detainees in the Cook County criminal justice system. This is the most recent result of the long history of activism for bail reform in Cook County—a history which began in the 1970s, as detailed in a threepart series in the Weekly earlier this year.

“Very basic information about how our court system, how our government is treating our neighbors, our friends, and our loved ones [is] not accessible,” said Coalition member Sharlyn Grace of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice at the release event. As she explained, the fact that Illinois courts are not subject to the state public records law makes it difficult for those looking to hold judges accountable to get data on the activities that occur within their courtrooms. (There is a process to request court data from Evans’s office, but whether or not the data is released is up to the discretion of the Chief Judge and can take months longer than a public records request.) In the absence of publicly available data, the Coalition turned to the time-tested practice of court watching to gather their own data on whether Cook County bond practices were constitutional or not.

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Watch the Coalition’s presentation from March 2018, courtesy of the Chicago Community Bond Fund:

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Evans implemented General Order 18.8A in September 2017, as the Coalition was planning its latest round of court watching. To determine the effects of this order on the pretrial practices in the County, the Coalition trained over one hundred court watchers to observe the practices in bond court a month before the order went into effect and a month after the order was implemented.

In bond courts, the court watchers collected both quantitative and qualitative data on bond court activities from August to October 2017, answering questions including: Were you and loved ones able to get in? Were you able to hear what was happening? What type of attorney did the defendant have? What was the risk assessment score? What were the State’s Attorney’s recommendations? What was the bond type set and amount? Were there any additional pretrial conditions?

Grace told the Weekly that there had been a significant improvement in bail practices in Cook County after the implementation of the order. Court watchers reported a forty-eight percent decrease in the use of money bonds in Central Bond Court overall and a twenty-six percent increase in the use of recognizance or I-Bonds, which assign each person a fee to pay if they do not show up to court but do not require that individuals pay a deposit to be released pretrial. They also noted a decrease in the rate of detainer, or D-Bonds—in which a person is required to post ten percent of the total amount of bond to be released pretrial—from forty-eight percent to twenty-three percent. The order also resulted in a decrease in the use of electronic monitoring as a pretrial condition, and a near-elimination of C-Bonds—which require defendants to pay the entire bond amount to be let out of jail pretrial—but resulted in an increase in instances in which individuals were denied bond altogether and were required to stay in jail pretrial, according to Grace. “You take one tool away, you see more restrictive conditions…. What we want to make sure is that we are not replacing these unpayable money bonds with no bonds,” she explained.

Though the order has also resulted in a seventy-three percent increase in judges inquiring into a person’s ability to pay before setting bond, people were given a bond amount that they could actually afford to pay in only fifty-seven percent of these cases. The order also resulted in greater judicial adherence to the recommendations provided by the court’s Public Safety Assessment (PSA) pretrial risk assessment tool, which provides recommendations to judges that are less restrictive than what judges would assign without PSA recommendations. However, the PSA has been strongly criticized by the Coalition and others for its use of racially biased data to make its assessments.

Overall, these findings are consistent with the publicized 1,400-person drop in the jail population in the first three months after the order went into effect. However, the decrease in the jail population has stalled in recent months, remaining steady at about 6,100 people in Cook County Jail, with an additional 2,117 people on electronic monitoring. Additionally, as Coalition member Sharone Mitchell of the Illinois Justice Project noted at the release, there is no indication that those whose bonds were set at unaffordable amounts before the order was implemented will have a chance to take advantage of the order. “The people who were put in jail before the order was implemented haven’t had much of a change in their circumstances and we don’t see much of a plan to change that,” he said.

One of the most crucial findings of the Coalition’s court watching initiative was that judges’ adherence to the order varied widely, with some continuing to set unaffordable bonds frequently and others more closely following Evans’s instructions. “Your freedom is determined by chance, is determined by what judge gets assigned to you the day you are in court. And that’s just wrong,” explained Mitchell. “Different crimes get treated differently and different judges have different biases.”

“Even though the practices of bond court have changed significantly, we are a long way from where we want to be and where the order would like us to be,” Grace said. She highlighted ongoing bond reform activism, including efforts to encourage the Illinois Supreme Court to code Order 18.8A into law for all 102 counties in Illinois, a class action lawsuit against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart for his attempts to prevent the immediate release of people who have paid their bail, and the #NoCopAcademy Campaign, an activist effort to get the city to cancel plans to build a ninety-five million dollar police training center in West Garfield Park.

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Beyond watching the actions of bond court judges, organizers have been pressing other elected officials for criminal justice reform in Cook County. Prosecutors in particular are among those who have the most power to change the unfair criminal justice practices in the county and are led by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. Attendees from churches all over the South Side packed St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in South Shore to attend a town hall with Foxx hosted by activist group The People’s Lobby (a Coalition member). Those present discussed how to hold elected officials accountable, ensure economic justice in their communities, and make the practices in the Cook County criminal justice system more just. Last March, making good on a campaign promise, Foxx’s office stopped opposing the release of defendants who are only being held because they can’t post bonds of up to $1,000.

“We’re here to talk about hope…. We have to stop believing that a tough-on-crime policy is a necessary evil to stop crime; it is not,” St. Luke Rev. Scott Onque declared at the beginning of the town hall, which included strategy sessions, testimony by attendees on their experiences in the Cook County criminal justice system, and analysis of the prison industrial complex with local faith leaders, in addition to a question-and-answer session with Foxx.

Attendees called for Foxx to publicly advocate for more funding for drug diversion programs to combat the effects of the opioid epidemic. They also called for an end to the practice of “overcharging,” in which prosecutors file charges they know they can’t prove so that defendants will accept plea deals, and asked her to implement a felony review guidebook in the State’s Attorney’s office by June 1, as well as to clarify what types of cases the office prosecutes—demands which Foxx largely agreed to.

Both Foxx and community leaders were in agreement that issues of criminal justice in Chicago exist within a larger landscape of inadequate healthcare, closing schools, lack of access to fresh food, and intergenerational trauma that characterizes many Chicago neighborhoods, and that all of these factors must be addressed together to mitigate the problem of crime in Cook County.

Foxx voiced her agreement on the need for reform across the criminal justice system in Cook County, stating that her office needs to “not just to make sure we’re locking up the right people, but to make sure we’re not locking up the wrong people,” and that it can’t afford to keep prosecuting people who are innocent. She cited the first-ever mass exoneration in Cook County history last November, which resulted in the vacation of eighteen convictions for fifteen South Side men convicted in cases connected to corrupt former CPD Sergeant Ronald Watts, currently serving a federal prison sentence.

“The work has to be done with us right here in our own communities,” Rev. Lawrence Marshall said, reflecting on the importance of creating opportunities for Chicagoans to interact with public officials like Foxx. “It is important for us to have face time with leaders because we are the ones who got them into office and we are the ones who can get them out of office.”

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