Cash Bail System Under Scrutiny

Jail building in Chicago, IL.

When somebody is arrested and charged with a felony, they have a right to a bond hearing.  At the bond hearing, the judge determines how much money needs to be posted in order for someone charged with a felony to be released from jail.  The statute that lays out the various factors that must be taken into consideration when setting the amount of the bond provides that the court should take into consideration the background, character, and criminal record of the defendant.  The court should also take into consideration the nature of the offense that a defendant is charged with and their criminal record and criminal background.  The purpose of the bond is to ensure that the defendant appears in court and that the public be protected from any potential harm that the defendant could cause.  The bond amount set by the court can have enormous consequences for an individual charged with a crime.  The cash bail system is coming under increased scrutiny with charges that it is discriminatory because it is unfair to indigent defendants who do not have any money.  The same statute that lays out the various factors that the court should take into consideration also provides that Bond shall not be excessive and that the court should take the financial resources of a defendant into consideration when setting a bond.  In my 24 years of practicing law in Cook County, I must have been at hundreds of bond hearings in Cook County.  Very rarely have I heard judges ask about the financial resources of a defendant.  The problem with that is that low-level drug offenders get arrested every single day in Cook County.  When they go to Bond Court the prosecutor tells the judge about the facts of the case and about the criminal history of the defendant.  If the judge sets a low bond that requires only a few hundred dollars be posted, the judge may well have set million dollar bond.  Many of these criminal defendants have no money whatsoever so they end up languishing in jail for many months until their case is resolved just because they don’t have a hundred dollars to post for Bond.  Not only is that wrong, but it makes no economic sense.  Last year, a record 1024 inmates spent more time in custody than the length of their entire jail sentence. According to Cook County, it costs the taxpayers about $60,000 a year to house an inmate in Cook County Jail for one year.  That cost is much more if the inmate has mental health or other health problems.

Cook County has been grappling with this problem for a long time.  The economic strain on the Cook County budget has caused officials to look at different ways to lower jail population.  The focus is on how to keep nonviolent low-level offenders out of jail.  County officials want to figure out how to avoid putting people in jail who pose no risk to the public so that tax dollars and costly jail space are not needlessly used.  Cook County has instituted a program whereby Pre-Trial Services prepares a report about a particular defendant that generates a score which informs the court about the likelihood that they will fail to go to court. However, the system has been criticized as not being thorough enough and for not doing enough to reduce the jail population in Cook County.  A class-action lawsuit has recently been filed in Cook County which alleges that the cash bail system in Cook County is racially discriminatory.  The Cook County Board has scheduled meetings to look at new and different ways to address the deficiencies in the cash bail system. There are simply too many low-level drug offenders who are spending time in jail simply because they lack the financial resources to get out of jail. This problem is straining the financial resources of Cook County.

James Dimeas is an award winning criminal defense attorney and author with more than 24 years of experience aggressively representing his clients in criminal cases.  If you have a criminal case in Illinois, contact me in Chicago (312-229-5500), DuPage and Kane (630-504-2096) or Lake (847-696-6458) for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal options.

Additional Resources:

725 ILCS 5/110-5, Determining the amount of bail and conditions of release.

Cash Bail Under Fire As Discriminatory While Poor Inmates Languish in Jail, Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune, November 15, 2016.