Cook County Courts Have Seen ‘Mostly Smooth’ Transition After Elimination of Cash Bail, New Report Finds

Leighton Criminal Court Building (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)Leighton Criminal Court Building (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)

Criminal court operations have been “mostly smooth” in Cook County during the first six months since Illinois eliminated cash bail for pretrial defendants statewide, a new report found.

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According to findings from the Civic Federation and the League of Women Voters of Cook County, the Pretrial Fairness Act has worked as intended during the first six months of its implementation.

“Our analysis indicates that Cook County benefitted from the fact that it already had several systems in place,” Civic Federation President Joe Ferguson said in a statement, “including legal representation for criminal defendants at first appearance; the use of a risk assessment tool to inform judges of defendants’ likelihood of being rearrested or not appearing in court; and a pretrial services program to oversee defendants ordered to pretrial supervision.”

In September, Illinois became the first state in the nation to officially eliminate the pretrial practice of requiring some criminal defendants to pay a set cash amount in order to secure their release from custody ahead of trial.

That provision was the subject of an intense legal battle, which delayed the elimination of cash bail from the start of last year until September, when it officially took effect. While proponents of the bill were frustrated by the delay, that extra time allowed for additional prep before cash bail officially went away.

“We’ve been preparing for this for 18 months since that bill was signed,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who strongly supported the Pretrial Fairness Act, told WTTW News weeks before cash bail’s elimination.

Since then, the population of the Cook County Jail has decreased by 13%, according to the report. During that same time, the number of Cook County defendants on pretrial supervision has increased by 22%, from 4,716 to 5,763.

People arrested for certain serious felonies — including first- and second-degree murder, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, violent robberies and burglaries, residential burglary, home invasion and vehicular invasion — can still be denied pretrial release.

Prosecutors must request a detention hearing and the decision whether to hold someone will be made at a judge’s discretion based on factors including the defendant’s likelihood to flee or any public safety risk that person may present.

According to the report, judges have granted detention in 59% of the 2,732 cases in which the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has requested a pretrial hold.

While the report found that the Pretrial Fairness Act has been “working as intended” thus far, it raised questions about how the change is impacting recidivism and compliance with court appearances.

The report also cited WTTW News reporting on the “breathtaking” swell of appeals seen under the new laws from defendants seeking to overturn a circuit court judge’s ruling that they should be kept in jail while awaiting trial.

But in observing actual court proceedings, the report authors found that the pretrial release processes in Cook County “have not changed drastically” from what they were prior to the Pretrial Fairness Act.

“Illinois is the first state to completely outlaw the use of cash bail,” Ferguson said. “Initial assessments show that the elimination of cash bail and other changes to pretrial release procedures have not been the disaster that some feared. But there are still issues to be resolved, especially in smaller and less-well-resourced counties outside the Chicago area.”

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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