COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — Cook County judges will soon be required to set affordable bail amounts for defendants who don't pose a risk to the community.
"Defendants should not be sitting in jail awaiting trial simply because they lack the financial resources to secure their release," said Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who announced the new policy Monday.
Beginning Sep. 18, bond court judges will be banned from setting bail that is too high for felony defendants to pay. Those deemed too dangerous for release will be denied bail all together pending trial; everyone else will be released on his own recognizance, placed on electronic monitoring or sent home after posting an affordable bond amount.
The same rules will roll out to misdemeanor cases in January.
Evans, a longtime proponent of bond reform, said the move is meant to protect low-income defendants who don't pose a risk to the community but cannot afford lofty bond.
"This new system makes it possible to extend the assumption of innocence to all defendants," Evans said in an interview Monday. "It's a commitment to fairness."
While bond court locations are expected to stay the same, Evans plans to create a new Cook County court division devoted solely to bond hearings. All judges are welcome to apply. Those selected will spend the next two months training in new bond court procedures and help reassess the entire system next fall.
"When someone is arrested and not required to stay in jail," Evans said, "they get a chance to return home to their family. It cuts down on the stress placed on a family [that could lead to] divorce, things like that. ...
"While the person is home pending the resolution of their case, they can keep their job ... They can coordinate with their lawyers. They can help to find witnesses to help on their behalf. They can assist in their defense. There's all kinds of humane reasons why someone should be released," he said.
Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx last month instructed prosecutors to urge judges to let nonviolent defendants go free pending trial without having to post bond.
In a statement Monday, Foxx said, "Far too many people have been detained pre-trial because they are poor and unable to post even minimal amounts for bond. This order provides an important reminder that our focus should be on non-monetary conditions of bond to ensure appearance in court and protect public safety."
In March, Foxx announced plans to work with the Cook County Sheriff's Office to identify and release nonviolent defendants being held in Cook County Jail, 2700 S. California Ave., before they cannot afford to post $1,000 or less.
In December, Foxx instructed assistant state's attorneys to only pursue felony charges for retail theft if someone steals more than $1,000 worth of merchandise or has 10 prior felony convictions. Previously, shoplifters could be charged with a felony for stealing $300 to $500 worth of merchandise.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart came out last year in favor of eliminating money bonds, which he dubbed costly and ineffective. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in October called for a public hearing on bond reform — arguing that unnecessary incarceration wastes taxpayer money.
"Often, as I'm walking through the jail, I'm talking to people who are no more dangerous to society than you and I," Dart said last year. "People are in here because they committed an insignificant crime and can't pay an insignificant bond because they're poor."
Dart argued 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. Dart estimates it costs Cook County taxpayers at least $150 a day to house an inmate.