Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has proposed eliminating the state’s cash bond system in favor of a system that allows a judge to decide whether or not a person should be released from jail before their trial.
Dart said he is in favor of scrapping the current system for a number of reasons. For starters, he says the cash bond system unfairly targets low-level offenders who can’t afford to meet the bail amount, and it allows more dangerous offenders to get back on the street if they have the money to do so.
Under the current system, judges set the bail amount for individuals charged with a crime, and defendants can either pay this amount to be released from prison before trial (with this money returning to them if they show up to court), or they can hire a bondsman to pay the amount for them (client pays a 10 percent non-refundable fee to the company, and the bondsman and their insurance company are responsible for the rest of the bond payment should you skip your court date). For example, let’s say you were charged with battery and bail was set at $2,000. You can pay $2,000 to be released from jail and have all that money returned to you if you show up to all your court dates, or you can can pay a bondsman $200 to pay the full amount for you, and you forfeit that $200 even if you attend all court dates. Forfeiting $200 isn’t ideal, but it’s the only option for people who can’t come up with $2,000 on a whim, so many defendants go this route.
Changing The Bail System
Dart is proposing that Illinois ditch the current system for one that lets judges decide if and to what extent bail should be set. Judges do have the ability to place a “recognizance bond” in certain low-level cases where no cash-bond is needed, but Dart is hoping an overhaul will allow judges to look at each case to ensure poor defendants aren’t punished by the system and dangerous offenders can’t cause more trouble by paying large amounts of money. He wants judges to issue bond amounts based on an intensive background investigation by the court’s staff.
Cara Smith, Dart’s top policy official, said many offenders are currently overpunished by the system simply because they cannot afford to come up with the cash to get out of jail before their trial.
“Today we have about 200 people who need $1,000 or less to post bond,” said Smith. “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.”
Under the current system, a judge is supposed to issue a bail amount that is “considerate of the financial ability of the accused,” while accounting for factors like the nature of the crime, the person’s flight risk, and how their absence from the outside world could affect their family and employment. However, Dart feels that the information provided to judges is lacking, and they don’t always make the best decisions, so he hopes to provide more thorough defendant evaluations so judges can have more information when determining what to do with a person before trial.
“It would be a much more thorough evaluation,” said Smith. “The goal would be to provide judges with much more information.”
Earlier this year, Dart pushed for legislation to add sheriffs to the list of individuals who can seek a reduction in bail for a defendant. Currently, only judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys can make that request. Dart’s initial proposal is still making its way through the proper channels, and we’ll keep an eye on both proposals in the coming months.