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Cook County Should Eliminate Cash Bonds, Sheriff Says

By Erica Demarest | November 15, 2016 5:10pm
 Sheriff Tom Dart on Tuesday said Cook County should move away from a cash bond system.
Sheriff Tom Dart on Tuesday said Cook County should move away from a cash bond system.
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DNAinfo/Erica Demarest

COOK COUNTY JAIL — Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Tuesday said the county should eliminate its use of cash bonds, which he dubbed costly and ineffective.

"Often, as I'm walking through the jail," Dart said, "I'm talking to people who are no more dangerous to society than you an I. ... People are in here because they committed an insignificant crime and can't pay an insignificant bond because they're poor."

As of Tuesday afternoon, the sheriff said, there were more than 8,000 people detained at Cook County Jail, 2700 S. California Ave. Of those, 185 people need less than a $1,000 to go free; 63 people could leave if they posted $500 or less.

Dart pointed out that defendants should only be held in jail pending trial for two reasons: They're either a flight risk or too dangerous to society to roam free.

But what often happens, Dart said, is that people who are wealthy can post any amount of bond and go home, while those who are poor remain stuck in jail — even on cases with small bonds.

"At the end of the day," Dart said at a news conference Tuesday, "the system itself is not working. We need to change that so it's not a system that cares about how wealthy you are, or whether you have access to drug money or gang money. It's a question of whether you're violent or not."

Dart suggested a cash-free approach to bond: Detain anyone who, through an intensive background check, is deemed dangerous to society. Everyone else goes free with access to pre-trial services such as anger-management classes or drug-addiction programs.

"If you're dangerous, you're in jail," Dart said. "If you're not dangerous, you're at home. ... The fact that you can't come up with $100 is irrelevant."

Should the county move to a cash-free system — which could take years and would require state legislators to revise the state's existing bond statute — the county would save money, Dart said. He estimates that it takes at least $150 a day to house an inmate at Cook County Jail. If that inmate needs medical or mental services, the cost could triple, Dart said.

Last month, terminally ill inmate Ryan Hanley died in custody because he couldn't afford to post 10 percent of his $50,000 bond for shoplifting, the Sun-Times reported. Hanley was accused of stealing $300 worth of merchandise from a Jewel-Osco.

“This case really underscores why there needs to be reform in the way bonds are set in Cook County,” Dart's Chief of Policy Cara Smith told CBS Chicago at the time. "We need a more robust system for reviewing bonds. The statute was never intended to keep people in custody simply because they are poor and that is in fact what is happening.”

Hanley's high bond was likely due to his lengthy criminal history, which includes convictions for burglary, armed robbery and theft.

Dart's call for reform echoes a push from local activist groups to eliminate the use of cash bonds in Cook County. Many point to Washington, D.C., as an example of a successful cash-free system.

"Money should never be a criteria in whether someone should be held in jail," said Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which uses crowdsourcing to post bond for select inmates.

"If somebody is a danger to the community, there could be other ways to address that," she continued. "There are very dangerous people that have access to money that can make high bonds, and there are people with low- and mid-level bonds that pose no threat to the community that are just sitting" in jail.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle last month called for a public hearing on bond reform, arguing that unnecessary incarceration wastes taxpayer money. That hearing is slated for 10 a.m. Thursday.

“We owe it to the taxpayers to investigate any claims of excessive or unfair pretrial practices," said Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. We are "calling on experts in criminal justice reform and those most affected to take part in a public hearing to investigate these claims."

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