Experts and Detainees Urge Reducing Use of Pretrial Detention in Cook County

On November 17, 2016, the Cook County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing on the use of monetary bond in the Cook County. Specifically, the hearing gathered evidence and testimony on the unconstitutionality of the current practice of detaining people pretrial simply as a result of their inability to pay bond and explored alternatives. The hearing was called for and chaired by Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and featured a powerful panel of people who were formerly detained pretrial in Cook County Jail or in their homes due to electronic monitoring as well as gripping testimony by Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps, Professor Cynthia Jones, Dr. Traci Schlesinger, and others. You can watch the entire hearing starting at minute 14 in the linked video.

This post presents highlights from testimonies presented at the hearing and supplemental research and sources for those interested in further investigation.


Image created by Chicago Community Bond Fund

First, however, some brief context on the problem of pretrial incarceration and other restrictions on liberty. There are currently 7,999 individuals detained in Cook County Jail; 93% are detained pretrial (as in not convicted of any offense); 67% of pretrial detainees have a monetary bond they cannot pay; and 70% of all pretrial detainees are facing charges for non-violent offenses. An additional 2,200 people are on pretrial electronic monitoring, an “ankle monitor” system that results in home confinement and a host of other negative consequences for many.

Secondly, the term “risk” is used throughout the hearing and often in reference to the use of pretrial risk assessment tools. In the pretrial phase, “risk” generally refers to a defendant’s risk of failing to appear in court, risk of committing (or being charged with committing) a new crime, and the particular risk of committing a new violent crime. Cook County is currently using the Arnold Foundation’s Public Safety Assessment tool to evaluate all felony defendants in Central Bond Court. The Chicago Reader published a thoughtful article on the PSA’s promises and limitations last month.

Testimony 1: Sharone Mitchell, Program Director at the Illinois Justice Project

Mr. Mitchell highlighted basic facts regarding the dysfunction of our current system. For example, hearings in bond court last an average of 37 seconds; 93% of the detainees in Cook County Jail are there awaiting a trial; and 63% of the detainees in Cook County Jail are there because they cannot post bond. The practice of detaining people indefinitely because they cannot post bond flouts the purpose of Illinois’s bond statute and likely the U.S. Constitution. As a matter of practice, judges in Cook County do not inquire as to what amount the defendant or his family would actually be able to post. The result is that money, rather than actual safety concerns, has become the driver of who is in jail. Individual bond court judges are further quite inconsistent in both the bonds they set and whether their decisions align with the recommendations of the pretrial risk assessment tool.

Mr. Mitchell also was the first to note what ultimately became a major theme of the hearing: ensuring that reform efforts dramatically reduce pretrial detention in addition to eliminating the use of money bond. Mr. Mitchell described our current structure as one that creates a two separate justice systems: the first, in which an individual is free pretrial and able to fight their case and exercise their rights; and a second, in which an individual is incarcerated pretrial and is consequently coerced into abandoning many rights. In the latter system, incarcerated defendants are many times more likely to plead guilty or be found guilty at trial. Defendants incarcerated pretrial also receive longer sentences. The significant downstream impact of pretrial detention thus makes it a significant driving force in mass incarceration.

Mr. Mitchell referenced this recent study on pretrial detention in Cook County at several points.

Testimony 2: Hon. Truman Morrison, Superior Court Judge, Washington, D.C.

Judge Morrison has served on the bench for 37 years. He noted that D.C. has demonstrated that dysfunctional justice systems can change and that, now, D.C. is unique in that there is not one person in jail pretrial because that person cannot post a monetary bond. D.C. releases approximately 90% of all people arrested. If a defendant is identified as being too risky to release, the person is detained for that reason and not because they cannot post a certain amount of money. 98% of the 90% of defendants released in D.C. return to court and are not rearrested. Of the 2% who are rearrested, it is almost universally for nonviolent offenses. You can review the D.C. Pretrial Service Agency’s performance measures here.

Judge Morrison further noted the incredible level of support for D.C.’s pretrial services system among the judiciary in D.C.: “There is not one outlier judge in my system.”

Commissioner Suffredin asked Judge Morrison about the costs of pretrial supervision, which may be necessary, he argued, in place of detention or monetary bond. Judge Morrison said funding is required to provide pretrial services, but most releases on recognizance do not require many pretrial services or supervision—simple reminders have been shown to work just as well. “[You] don’t need all the bells and whistles,” Judge Morrison noted. In DC, 25% of those released have no supervision whatsoever; in Kentucky, that percentage is even higher. “You are going to have to spend some money, but when you do that, you get rich dividends: major cost savings by not using jail beds.“

Here is a recent Washington Post article discussing Judge Truman and the D.C. system.

Professor Jones at the hearing

Testimony 3: Professor Cynthia Jones, American University Washington College of Law

Professor Jones’s testimony focused on the racial bias that results from the use of monetary bond. Black defendants are the least likely to be released on their own recognizance and also the least likely to be able to pay a monetary bond. Being Black increases the likelihood of being denied bail by 25%. The same figure for Latinos is 24%. Bail should be the great equalizer in a racially discriminatory criminal justice system because it is capable of compensating for differences in class and ability to gain release, but, in fact, the opposite is happening.

Professor Jones relayed a story of public defender representing an African American man in order to note the chasm between what judges may think is reasonable monetary bond versus what defendants and their families can afford. The public defender felt terrific that she had gotten the bail reduced to just $300; however, after going to the family of the defendant, she was told by the grief-stricken grandmother, “Sweetheart, there has never been $300 in this house at one time, ever.”

Professor Jones noted there are two “drivers” that explain the kind of bail system we have now: 1) expediency and 2) the lack of relevant information: “Nobody is checking relevant information on anybody.” Hearings are happening so quickly and with so little investigation that decisions are not well-informed. Secondly, many pretrial services departments are either insufficient or non-existent. Simply collecting telephone contact information for defendants in order to provide text message or call reminders can increase the appearance rate in court up to 90%. Despite proof that such simple and non-monetary steps are as effective or even more effective than monetary bonds, many jurisdictions, like Cook County, continue to rely on them out of habit.

Professor Jones is the founder of the Pretrial Racial Justice Initiative, a project of Pretrial Justice Institute.

Panel of previously detained people at the hearing

Panel: Gloria Ramirez, Tyler Smith, and Lavette Mayes, People impacted by monetary bond and pretrial restrictions on liberty

(moderated by Chicago Community Bond Fund co-founder and Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice Criminal Justice Fellow, Sharlyn Grace)

All three panelists had recent experience with monetary bond and experienced negative consequences because they could not pay their bond. Gloria Ramirez and Lavette Mayes were incarcerated in Cook County Jail (CCJ), and Tyler Smith was placed on electronic monitoring (EM) and confined to his home. Ms. Ramirez was given a $100,000 D-Bond (requiring payment of $10,000) despite having no prior arrests, being a diabetic, and having caretaking responsibilities for her grandchild who is in her custody. Ms. Ramirez spent several weeks in CCJ before her family was able to take out loans and borrow bond money to get her out. Lavette Mayes was given a $250,000 bond requiring payment of $25,000 despite the fact she also had no prior arrests, was working, and was the primary caretaker for her two children. Ms. Mayes spent 14 months in CCJ before her bond was reduced to $95,000 (requiring $9,500 be posted), and Chicago Community Bond Fund posted her bond.

Tyler Smith, on the other hand, was given a $25,000 D-Bond in lieu of EM, meaning that he had to post $2,500 in order to be removed from an ankle monitor requiring him to stay inside his home at all times unless given permission to leave by the Sheriff’s Office. Mr. Smith was working two jobs at the time of his arrest, including one as a supervisor. He had been the head of his household since his mid-teens and had no prior arrests. Due to the restrictions of EM, however, Mr. Smith lost his job at UPS, and he and his mother almost lost their housing.

Mr. Smith stressed that EM is in many ways as bad as being in jail. He described how could not even go to the grocery story or church without special permission, much less go to job interviews. When Mr. Smith did secure job interviews, he would call the Sheriff’s Office asking for permission to attend the interview. The Sheriff’s deputies then called each potential employer to verify the interview, scaring the employers off and making getting a job virtually impossible.

All three panelists told of horrifying conditions in Cook County Jail that they witnessed while detained pretrial. Ms. Ramirez could not get the food she needed to keep her diabetes under control or regular checks of her blood pressure. The costs of commissary and phone calls were additional financial burdens on families already strapped for resources. Ms. Ramirez also mentioned seeing bugs and rodents in her cell.

You can find more information about the Chicago Community Bond Fund on their website or Facebook page.

Testimony 4: Alec Karakatsanis, Civil Rights Corps

Alec Karakatsanis and the Civil Rights Corps have filed approximately 20 court challenges to the use of monetary bond across 20 jurisdictions, most recently here in Cook County. He noted that there are 450,000 individuals in jail on pretrial detention nationally—people being held in cages while presumed innocent—all without any evidence that it is doing society any good. In fact, the opposite is true: people held in pretrial detention are eventually 40% more likely to commit crimes in the future.

With respect to Cook County, Mr. Karakatsanis noted the large number of “dead days” caused by our current system. Dead days is Sheriff Dart’s name for time spent in Cook County Jail that exceed the length of the sentences imposed when people are finally convicted. Last year, there were 1,024 individuals who spent so much time in custody that once they were sentenced to state prison, they already had served every day of their prison sentence. On average, these individuals served two and a half months of extra time incarcerated.

Mr. Karakatsanis noted two dangers to look out for as Cook County explores alternatives to monetary bail are explored: (1) An overuse of supervision. Some jurisdictions, too fearful to simply let people go based on the research and a verified risk assessment, instead overburden individuals with needless and oppressive supervision that ultimately only ensures their failure and subsequent detention; and (2) An overuse of no-bond detention itself, simply incarcerating the same number of people (many of whom could be safely released) only without the monetary bonds they could not previously pay.

As many of the speakers before him also did, Mr. Karakatsanis noted that Cook County’s ultimate goal must be to reduce pretrial detention through and in combination with the elimination of monetary bail.

You can see Alec Karakatsanis address the American Bar Foundation on the same topics here.

Testimony 5: Amy Campanelli, Cook County Public Defender

As the Public Defender for Cook County, Amy Campanelli focused on the impact of the current system on her impoverished clients. Ms. Campanelli called out the existing lack of transparency in pretrial release decisions, pointing out that judges are hiding detention decisions behind money that defendants cannot pay, saying that if the decision “had integrity,” they would recognize that “a $25,000 Bond is a ‘No Bond’ decision for most of [her] clients.” Ms. Campanelli also noted that electronic monitoring is a form of custody, and that it is not working administratively or as an effective form of release for most of her clients.

Ms. Campanelli explained that the current bond statute has more than 30 criteria for judges to consider in a bond hearing—far too many, in her opinion. The absurdity that judges can consider more than 30 complex factors leads them instead to consider only their own instincts and biases: “When judges consider everything, they consider nothing.”

Finally, Ms. Campanelli noted that there is a built-in bias toward conviction for those who are locked-up pretrial: Only 50% of defendants out on bond are convicted, but 92% of defendants incarcerated pretrial are convicted. “Are you more guilty if you are locked up?,” Ms. Campanelli asked the crowd, “No, of course not.”

Earlier in the day at the press conference preceding the hearing, Ms. Campanelli also emphasized the considerable discretion bond court judges have to issue more I-Bonds under existing law. Barring a significant voluntary shift in judicial behavior, Ms. Campanelli suggested that Cook County has two ways to move forward: either Chief Judge Timothy Evans could issue an order to change the outcomes in bond court, or state legislative change will be needed.

Dr. Schlesinger at the hearing

Dr. Traci Schlesinger, Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University

Dr. Schlesinger noted a number of things to keep in mind when planning for a system without monetary bond. First, out of any stage in the criminal justice system, the greatest racial discrimination occurs during the pretrial detention stage. Secondly, the impact of this discrimination is not just additive, it is multiplicative, meaning it results in increasing racial disparities as cases progress to resolution and sentencing. At present, all risk assessment instruments rely heavily on the defendant’s criminal record. Therefore, we must design and use risk assessment instruments that do not simply “launder” the racism inherent in previous points of contact with the criminal legal system such as arrests, which are known to be incredibly racially biased.

Secondly, Dr. Schlesinger warned against the use of too much pretrial supervision and even more insidious “pretrial treatment”—particularly if taking place in custody or through involuntary hospitalization. Empirically, it has been established that in-custody treatment is not effective and “treatment” in such a setting does not overcome the great harm of incarceration itself. By locating treatment in a jail or other secure facility, we begin to make destructive decisions under the mistaken assumption that we are helping by locking a person in a cage.

You can read some of Dr. Schlesinger’s work on pretrial release here.

You can watch and listen to the entire 3.5 hour hearing, including public comments, here.

Note: All photos used in this post were taken from Chicago Community Bond Fund’s twitter, @ChiBondFund.




Closed Door Election Retains Cook County Chief Judge: Now What?

The election for one of the most important roles in our justice system has come and gone. This post aims to cover the media coverage, significance, and ongoing controversies related to the Office of the Chief Judge at this critical time.

The September 15th election of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County – the biggest unified court system in the world – has come and gone. The Chicago Tribune and other mainstream media outlets made a laudable effort at keeping us informed in the days and weeks leading up to the election. In a moment of decimated newsrooms handling a flurry of election year reporting and high-profile police reform and accountability efforts, the media deserves credit for designating significant (virtual) ink to telling the public about the election of the Chief Judge and why it matters so much when we, the public, have little voice in selecting the person for the job.

On the day before the election, the Chicago Tribune reminded the tax payers of Cook County that, “At stake is a position that holds great sway over one of the nation’s largest judicial systems, exerting deep influence over cases ranging from traffic violations to murder trials” and also Who controls Cook County’s massive court system is important; an ineffective system can harm those who pass through it and cost taxpayers greatly.”

On the day of the election, 232 of the 241 voting eligible judges cast ballots, and incumbent Chief Judge Tim Evans was re-elected by a mere 26 votes. Media coverage in the weeks and days leading up to the election was unprecedented and marked by flashpoints that we as Cook County residents should not forget. The press put real effort into prying open the black box of our vast and normally opaque court system. Let’s pry it open further by taking a look at what we learned, what to expect next, and what we should keep watching.

Image: ABC7

The context

This latest election was considered the most serious challenge to Evans’s leadership since he became Chief Judge in 2001. One day before the election, a long-time political observer noted, “There is obviously a rebellion going on.” Evans faced challenger Tom Allen, a current judge and former alderman. Sandra Ramos, a current judge and former assistant state’s attorney and criminal defense lawyer withdrew her candidacy 2 days before the election took place.

Evans is a longtime figure in Chicago politics and a former alderman who lost the 1989 mayoral race to Richard M. Daley. Elected to City Council in 1973, he later served as floor leader for Mayor Harold Washington in the early 1980s. After Washington’s death in 1987, Evans made his first unsuccessful bid for mayor. Later, after losing his council seat, Evans ran successfully for circuit court judge in 1992. Nine years later, he defeated four challengers to become Cook County’s chief judge. The Tribune notes that, “Today, Evans heads a sprawling system that has 13 courthouses, with about 1.2 million criminal and civil cases pending at any given time. Besides the 386 circuit and associate judges, Evans supervises close to 2,700 employees and also heads the county juvenile temporary detention center and probation department. The court’s 2016 budget is nearly $236 million.”

Recap of controversy

Thanks to the Tribune’s outline and issues previously covered in this blog, we don’t have to look far for a synopsis of past issues originating from the Office of the Chief Judge.

  • Shielding Embarrassing Cases: A 2012 investigation discovered judges improperly hiding from public scrutiny embarrassing court cases involving politicians, athletes, wealthy businessmen and others.
  • Losing Track Of Probationers: In 2013, local media broke that the Adult Probation Department had lost track of hundreds of probationers and had overlooked curfew violations and new crimes by their clients. After three months, Evans made leadership changes.
  • Armed Rogue Officers: A 2014 Tribune investigation “found that an armed unit of rogue officers had allegedly violated probationers’ civil rights. Evans hired a law firm to investigate the Tribune’s findings, but he has refused to release the firm’s report or even to say if he had disciplined any employees or referred any wrongdoing to authorities.”
  • Systemic Bond Court Issues Exposed by IL Supreme Court: Also in 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court released a report into how the court system detains and releases people accused of crimes, outlining a lack of leadership and basic understanding of certain court services that led to people unnecessarily awaiting trial behind bars.
  • Favoritism and Retaliation: Internally, fellow judges have criticized the management style and leadership of Evans, complaining that he often plays favorites in promotions and courtroom assignments. Fellow judges have made allegedly unheeded suggestions for improvement such as an increase in democratic input from judges, a professional administrator to provide expertise on hiring and budget management, and the public posting of job openings in the Office of the Chief Judge. Namely, Judge Patrick Murphy disclosed the following in a mass email: “I submit that our present system quells creativity, quashes dissent and quiets alternative approaches. … Individual judges are frequently afraid to speak out about issues.”

Election flashpoints

  • Clerk Impersonating a Judge: A scandal at the Markham Courthouse uncovered in the weeks leading up to the election earned the Chief Judge’s race even more scrutiny. Although still unresolved and now in the hands of the Illinois Supreme Court after a request from the state commission that oversees lawyers, the Tribune described the incident as “a major embarrassment for the Cook County Circuit Court, one of the nation’s largest court systems, [which] helped spur an unsuccessful revolt against Chief Judge Evans.” In August, Rhonda Crawford, a law clerk and staff attorney for Chief Judge Evans, allegedly put on a judge’s robe and heard at least three traffic cases in the Markham courtroom of Judge Valarie Turner. The cases were since reheard in early September, but Crawford—who is running for Judge in the 1st Judicial Subcircuit—is still on the ballot. Evans’s office moved swiftly: Judge Valarie Turner was reassigned to administrative duties that do not include hearing cases and Rhonda Crawford was fired. Ms. Crawford has refused to remove herself from the November 8th ballot, however, and now faces a write-in candidate (though the pending suspension of her law license would make her ineligible to be a judge). This incident received front page attention in the October 15th print version of the Tribune.
  • Organizing from African-American Clergy: As election day neared, the battle became more heated and more public. Judges complained about threats from African-American ministers to target them at the voting booth in the November general election if Evans was defeated, and public statements even outlined this plan. The day before the election, a group of African-American ministers and other clergy members threatened to retaliate against judges who did not vote for Evans, although it is unknown how the group intended to identify voters from the secret ballots. One pastor warned: “If we lose Judge Evans, our next move is to request of all African-Americans to not vote to retain judges in the November election. … If they turn their back on Judge Evans, we will turn our backs on them.” A local Bishop’s spokesperson declared, “To work against Tim Evans is a slap in the face of the African-American community”

What’s next?

When a hard-fought and close election ends in the maintenance of the status quo, there may be a sense of discouragement and fatalism among those that advocated for change; however, being forced to campaign can move elected officials to do more and push a threatened administration toward reform. There remain real limitations to the reforms that can be raised by judges: as Dick Simpson noted in the aforementioned Tribune article, “[i]t’s a pretty closed world […] A lot of it is whether the judges are satisfied with their own little world, and Tim Evans at the top. They’re not looking at the overall question of whether there will be change to the system.” Systemic changes require the sustained attention of the public and the media on the following three key areas.

1. Priorities

In a time of incredibly tight budgets, the press must examine which projects are prioritized within the Office of the Chief Judge. Chief Judge Evans has touted his support for diversion programs and problem-solving courts when asked how he is improving the criminal courts. Will these and other alternative programs receive financial support and other investments from his office? Will judicial training in relevant areas be developed and implemented?

This past summer, Judge Evans appeared in the press again and again supporting the creation of a restorative justice community court in North Lawndale. Will this nascent project—currently in its planning phase—still be supported now that the election is over?

2. Assignment of Judges

One of the recurring charges against Judge Evans’s administration is that judicial assignments are doled out not of the basis of merit but based on clout or (for unwanted assignments) for the purposes of political retaliation. It is the role of the press and the public to scrutinize whether judges placed in powerful assignments are fit for those roles. Do problem-solving court judges have both the sensitivity and training to deal with the complex and nuanced needs of the people before them such as mental health issues, trauma, drug dependence, and homelessness? Are domestic relations, law division, and felony trial judges familiar with their respective subject matter? The public must also be able to examine whether the associate judge appointment process is truly putting in place talented and forward-thinking jurists.

3. Increased Accountability

Finally, the Office of the Chief Judge should be rendered more accountable to the broader public as opposed to just the judiciary. The current electoral structure and historical lack of public consciousness about the courts makes this difficult; however, the media has shown it can play a critical role in shining light into the court’s operations. The Office of the Chief Judge has a profound effect on the quality of justice in Cook County: It sets a standard for the hundreds of judges hearing all matter of cases, and its massive budget carries enormous secondary effects on the connected budgets of the health and hospitals system, the Cook County Department of Corrections, and many more. At a minimum, the Office of the Chief Judge should be expected to report publicly on the performance of the judiciary.

As election season comes to a close, we must keep demanding that the Office of the Chief Judge provide the budget priorities, judicial appointments, and public accountability that the Cook County justice system and all those impacted by it so desperately need.



“Is This It?” Evans’s Attempted Transparency Fix Raises Even More Doubts

On August 12th, Timothy Evans, Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, sent this letter [PDF] to all judges operating in the Circuit Court of Cook County. In it, he acknowledges that judges have found it difficult to meet with him, sets aside a “block of time” on Thursdays, and asks that any judges looking to get in touch with him schedule appointments with his assistant, kindly providing contact information.
What is troubling about this seemingly innocuous memo is that it further betrays that judges did not previously have a means of scheduling such appointments. The letter also does little to restore confidence regarding one of the most troubling issues about this administration: the inability of judges and representatives of other public safety agencies–not to mention outside groups–to get an audience with the Chief Judge or communicate effectively with his office. This in itself is not news; appointments with the Office of the Chief Judge (OCJ) are regularly canceled or delayed at the last minute. Those lucky enough to obtain a scheduled meeting with the Chief Judge are often subjected to waits well over an hour (or two) after the scheduled start time.

Furthermore, there have been indications–as in the emails sent out by Judge Patrick Murphy–that this stifling of communications both with the OCJ and laterally between judges is a matter of policy rather than an accident.
Evans Meeting Memo Photo
The memorandum sent by Judge Evans on August 12, 2016.

One would hope that a contested election for Chief Judge (right around the corner on September 15) would have inspired more progress on transparency and communication than simply distributing contact information for Chief Judge Evans’s assistant. Sadly, the standard of communication has been so low for so long, that this memo actually marks the most progress we’ve seen in Evans’s 15 years in office.

10 Things You Don’t Know About the Office of the Chief Judge

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans holds a powerful political office with many responsibilities. His office, The Office of the Chief Judge (“OCJ”) is responsible for overseeing many aspects of the Circuit Court of Cook County, the largest unified court system in the United States. In addition to establishing court policies and procedures, the OCJ is responsible for overseeing judicial behavior. Despite the office’s tremendous power—including the power to lead criminal justice reform efforts during this time of tremendous opportunity and public support—the office remains largely a mystery to those outside the legal community.

  1. The OCJ budget is HUGE. Over $240 million per year, in fact.
  2. Jesse Reyes, the disgraced former head of adult probation in Cook County, is currently the second highest paid staff person in the OCJ. His “Court Services Project Administrator” position comes with no discernable job duties and a $144, 700.00 salary (in 2015).
  3. Accountability of judges for poor performance is non-existent. The OCJ’s chief mechanism for sanctioning judges is moving them to undesirable courtroom assignments, but judges are moved to these roles (such as traffic court) only for political reasons or media pressure and never to mitigate the harm they may be perpetrating against average people in their courts. When an African American law professor was threatened with arrest for simply taking notes during an open proceeding at 26th and California, the only sanction the judge received was from the Chicago Tribune. It took the high-profile assault of a Sheriff’s Deputy to force the removal of Judge Brim in 2014 after years of egregious and harmful behavior.
  4. The Cook County OCJ has failed to lead court reform initiatives the way it could. In New York City, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman [PDF] has been a driving force of dramatic bail reforms both in his jurisdiction and across the state of New York. Here in Illinois, retired McLean County Chief Judge Elizabeth Robb dramatically improved courtroom information sharing through technological innovations. There is immense bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform at the national, state, and county levels, yet the OCJ in Illinois’s largest county is a critical puzzle piece that remains missing.
  5. As Chief Judge, Tim Evans instituted a disastrous and unnecessary cellphone ban that dramatically restricted access to the felony courthouse for lower income people.
  6. The OCJ is responsible for allocating millions of dollars in county contracts. Cook County insider contract awards result in underperforming court services and third party vendors who are never held to account. In response to a larger troubling incident regarding civil rights violations within the Adult Probation Department, Chief Judge Timothy Evans hired a politically connected law firm to investigate. The firm was granted no subpoena power, is managed by a partner with deep ties to Evans, and has been accused of using the investigation to uncover the Tribune’s sources for the initial story that lead to public scrutiny.
  7. The OCJ is notoriously difficult to work with. The office often delays hiring, and refuses grants that would fund needed services or advance reform. For example, Jesse Reyes was appointed in 2005 “to become acting chief probation officer, but [Evans] never formally made the title permanent, a fact that sources said left many questioning the department’s leadership” all the way through Reyes’s departure in 2014.
  8. The OCJ uses ghost payroll and secret job postings to avoid public accountability. The OCJ employs more than 20 “legal system analysts,” yet no one has ever met one of them. In addition, there is no central website posting for jobs in the OCJ, unlike every other county department such as the Forest Preserve, the Assessor, Health and Hospitals, the Office of the President, and the Sheriff’s Office, to name a few.
  9. Only people who work for the Chief Judge get to vote for the Chief Judge. The Chief Judge is elected by a vote of all elected judges: about 250 of the total 400 judges.
  10. There is an election coming up in September, 2016! Current Chief Judge Timothy Evans is being challenged by former Alderman and current Chancery Division Judge Thomas Allen.

    justice-050815 11.JPG
    Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court Timothy Evans, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez speaking to the City Club of Chicago at Maggiano’s, on Cook County Justice. Thursday, May 7, 2015 (Brian Jackson/For the Sun Times)

Accelerated Release Isn’t Good Enough for People Who Should Never Have Been in Jail At All

In August 2015, the Accelerated Resolution Court Act created a pilot program in Cook County called the “Rocket Docket.” Developed and pushed by Sheriff Tom Dart, the law promised to release certain highly sympathetic prisoners from the Cook County Jail (“CCJ”) earlier than they would otherwise be released by capping their jail stays at 30 days. As originally designed, the Sheriff’s Office was to refer defendants charged with misdemeanor retail theft or criminal trespass to a special court if they remained in the jail longer than 3 days after their monetary bond had been set. (This was meant to ensure anyone with the means to bond out did so on their own.) The pilot program then required the special Rocket Docket court to resolve these low-level, nonviolent cases within 30 days or to release the defendants on their own recognizance or on electronic monitoring (“EM”). Ultimately, no separate court was established and eligible cases currently continue to make their way through the usual misdemeanor courtrooms. Sheriff Dart’s office simply alerts the State’s Attorney’s office, the defendant’s counsel of record, and the Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division (presently Judge Leroy Martin) after determining that a defendant may qualify for the Rocket Docket’s resolve or release requirements.

Sheriff Dart has been outspoken on the need to reduce CCJ’s population and stop jailing people who pose no threat to public safety. The Rocket Docket idea, however, only impacts a very small percentage of CCJ’s population. Dart’s own estimates predicted about 150-200 of the more than 8,000 people incarcerated in CCJ at any given time would be eligible for the program. With more than 70,000 annual admissions to CCJ, 200 impacted people amounts to less than a quarter of one percent of the admitted individuals. Eligibility is further reduced by the requirement that defendants not have certain prior convictions. Cara Smith, Dart’s Chief of Policy, reported in April of this year that only 13% of eligible prisoners were referred for the Rocket Docket pilot program, and fewer than that were actually released. That means as few as 26 people could have been referred through the pilot program for release, and fewer than that released.

Now, Sheriff Dart is trying to expand the Accelerated Resolution Court Act through HB 6190. The new bill expands the pool of eligible defendants to include those charged with certain traffic violations and class 4 felony violations of the Illinois Controlled Substances Act. The bill has already passed both houses of the legislature and is awaiting Governor Rauner’s signature.

The problems with the “Rocket Docket” as a solution for unnecessary pretrial detention, however, are not simply the miniscule number of eligible defendants or abysmally low referral rate. As a result, the pilot’s real limitations cannot be addressed simply by statutorily expanding the pool of eligible defendants. First and most importantly, 30 days is a horrifically long time to hold anyone in jail who is deemed appropriate for release. As a standard, it avoids none of the well-documented harms caused by even a few days in detention [PDF] such as increased recidivism, loss of jobs and housing, higher rates of conviction, and longer sentences. The easier and much simpler, evidence-based solution [PDF] would be to release such low-level offenders on personal recognizance bonds immediately instead of allowing judges to continue to set monetary bonds that will be overridden only after a defendant has spent 30 destructive and expensive days in detention.

CCJ beds.jpg
Hundreds of inmates sleep together on bunks in a large room of the Cook County Jail, Thursday, Sep. 5, 2013, in Chicago. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune)


Secondly, the vast majority of misdemeanor retail theft and criminal trespass cases are already resolved in under 30 days, most often through dismissals or plea agreements. Rather than shortening the length of stay in Cook County Jail, establishing 30 days as a cut-off period for such low-level cases has in some instances worked to lengthen the defendant’s incarceration, the opposite of its design. When public defenders raise the issue of bond for eligible defendants and request release on a personal recognizance bond or EM, the assistant state’s attorneys in some courtrooms have been observed to cite the 30 day cut-off as still weeks out and reason to put off re-evaluating the money bond currently keeping the defendant incarcerated. Rather than create a norm of not incarcerating people charged with misdemeanors, the Accelerated Resolution Court Act has in part worked to normalize up to 30 days of incarceration for defendants charged with even these most harmless of offenses.

If the goal is to release these defendants who cannot pay their bonds, then there are also numerous court dates that occur earlier than 30 days in and that would provide much more natural points of re-evaluation for bond decisions, such as arraignment or preliminary hearings. In addition, the Rocket Docket’s narrow eligibility requirements further reinforce the idea that defendants who are not eligible should remain detained longer than 30 days–reinforcing a false division of “worthy” and “unworthy” defendants based simply on a short lists of current charges cross-referenced with past convictions. Such an oversimplified and thus politically appealing determination of who may be detained pre-trial for more than 30 days is not research-based. In fact, it flies in the face of studies that link unnecessary pretrial detention with increased recidivism and support the use of only interventions that match properly assessed risks and needs. These costs to the larger conversation about necessary criminal justice reform are quite simply not worth the benefit of releasing at most 26 people per year sooner than they might otherwise be released.Cook County Jail

Sheriff Dart, meanwhile, has been reaping the publicity benefits of the Rocket Docket and its proposed expansion. As a statutory intervention into jail populations, it is not designed to address the issues of mass incarceration, something Sheriff Dart has implied. Overall, the Rocket Docket legislation is poorly designed policy carrying the potential to serve far too few people to be worthwhile. While heartbreaking, the stories Dart shares with press–such as that of “D.E.” who spent 86 days in Cook County Jail for trespass–are outliers. These extreme cases should be addressed alongside the unnecessary and unjustifiable four day or two week jail stays requiring that all defendants with nonviolent charges be given personal recognizance bonds or some similarly broad standard. The public should demand good policy that pushes judges to rely increasingly on personal recognizance bonds instead of maintaining a system that allows money to determine pretrial incarceration. Additional policy changes occurring earlier on in a potential defendant’s contact with the criminal legal system such as alternatives to arrest and pre-prosecution diversion must also be explored if we are to truly decrease the strain on criminal courts and lessen case processing time.

Although the Rocket Docket makes a great soundbite for an ambitious politician, it is poor public policy. We can and must do much better if we are truly serious about reducing unnecessary pretrial detention.

Absurdity of Courthouse Cellphone Ban Reaches New Heights

In recent weeks, the ban on possession of cellphones in a single courthouse for the Circuit Court of Cook County has gained an unprecedented amount of media attention with stories on NPR, in the Chicago Tribune and throughout local TV news. The attention resulted from a public push and pull to remove—and then quickly reinstall—lockers at the Leighton Criminal Courts building located in Chicago. Cook County now finds itself in the absurd position of having amongst the highest ranking administrators in the Adult Probation Department manning cell phone lockers which have not been shown to be necessary any other courthouse in the circuit or in many large urban courthouses throughout the country.

The cellphone ban prohibits all non-attorneys from bringing any cell phone, smart phone, tablet or laptop computer into the courthouse. The ban was established in 2013 by the Office of the Chief Judge, who cited security concerns over individuals recording and taking pictures of witnesses, victims, defendants, and/or court staff during proceedings. At present, the ban is enforced only at the courthouse at 26th and California where the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County processes felony cases arising in Chicago. Such a ban is not in place in several other large urban court systems throughout the country.

The Leighton Criminal Division Building is located at 2600 South California and is difficult to access by public transit from many areas of Chicago. Despite that, 90% of the people who arrive at 26th & California on any given day take buses and/or trains to get there. With the cell phone ban in place, these public transit users have no car in which to leave their phone or other electronics when they go inside the courthouse.

It is obvious to all readers, no doubt, the central role that cell phones and laptops play in modern life. Being unable to bring a phone or laptop that is needed for post-court work or family obligations easily turns the already inconvenient trip to 26th and California into a full half-day or more of travel. Witnesses, defendants, supporters, and victims have struggled to contact attorneys or get necessary information about which courtroom they need to be in without access to their cell phones. After court, they find themselves stranded by the combination of poor transit access and having no phone with which to coordinate a ride home or to work.

In order to deal with the need for cell phone storage, in 2013 the Circuit Court of Cook County installed a small number of free lockers for use at the courthouse. These small lockers fit only cell phones, and are limited in number. Many people attending court have been known to resort to hiding their cellphones outside under bushes or paying the food truck operator outside to store their phones for them when the lockers were full. Worse still, others have missed court dates, unable or unwilling to abandon their phone or laptop outside the building.

One year ago, the vendor who had managed the courthouse lockers abruptly left. The facilities management department informed the Office of the Chief Judge (OCJ), that it would staff the lockers, but only temporarily until another solution was found. A year passed with no progress in identifying a new vendor to operate the lockers. In the interim, facilities staff reported instances of people putting contraband (drugs and weapons) in the lockers.

Facilities management staff are not trained in security or law enforcement, and both Cook County Homeland Security and the Sheriff’s Office have expressed concerns about having lockers inside of courthouses. This concern has only grown in recent months due to events elsewhere in the world.

On February 19, 2016, facilities management informed the OCJ of their intent to remove the lockers on March 7, 2016. Ultimately, the lockers were not removed until April 1, 2016. Yet between February 19th and April 1st, no replacement vendor was found. So, on April 1st, lockers for cell phones were temporarily no longer available for use by all the people traveling to 26th and California without a bar license or a car.

After public outcry, the lockers were reinstalled—this time after security. Instead of arranging for a permanent, outside vendor, the Office of the Chief arranged for high-ranking individuals in the adult probation department to staff the lockers as a result of their non-union status. As a result, individuals such as the Deputy Director of Cook County Adult Probation, who has a myriad of important supervisory and administrative duties, is spending his/her days staffing the cellphone lockers.

What is the solution to this problem? The cellphone ban itself may have to be revisited. Currently it is incredibly easy to circumvent (one need only wear business attire and look like they are at the courthouse in the professional capacity to walk through the metal detectors with a cellphone and laptop in tow), the lockers have created their own security concerns while creating the hardships mentioned above, and other courthouses manage without such a ban by simply having courtroom deputees police cellphone use and disruption within each room. There is no reason presented by the Office of the Chief Judge that the Sherriff’s deputees, whose job description includes maintaining the proper courtroom environment and safety are not capable of this.


Visitation at Cook County Jail – Part 3

Cook County Jail is one of the largest single-site jails in the nation, occupying 96 acres on the city’s West Side. Most inmates are housed at the jail for only a short period of time before receiving a trial or being bailed out. It is common, however, for some inmates to spend months and in some cases even years in the jail before they are released or sent to prison. Receiving visits during incarceration can be incredibly beneficial for the morale of an inmate and their loved ones. Unfortunately, the process is often complicated, inconvenient and exhausting.

To find out more about  visiting an inmate at Cook County Jail, Cook County Justice Watch spoke to Patty Cloud, a member of Progressive Community Church. Patty has been visiting incarcerated members of the church’s congregation since 2011, and is involved in religious volunteer work in the Cook County DOC. In the first segment of this series,  Patty talked about the process of being cleared for visitation, which involves locating the inmate and being placed on their visitor list, submitting a visitor application and clearing a background check. In the second segment, she talked about visiting day and the process of conducting a conversation with an inmate through a metal grate that prohibits eye contact while speaking.

In the third and final segment of this series, Patti talks about just a few of the many obstacles she encountered while visiting or attempting to visit inmates and some improvements she feels could make visitation easier.


In this interview, she talks about the difficulty that older visitors may have navigating lengthy walks from check-in kiosks to their division. She also suggests that there must be somewhere inside the massive jail where visitors could sit while waiting to visit, sheltered from the elements, rather than standing outside for hours. Alerting families when a division or tier goes on lockdown  would help families to determine if a visit is even possible on a specific day, she says.

The Cook County Jail complex at 2700 S. California Ave. has 10 divisions.

Have you ever been held at Cook County Jail, or visited an inmate there? Please share your experience below. Cook County Justice Watch would like to know how you think the process of visitation could be improved.

Interview footage shot and produced by Rachel Hoffman.

Interview conducted by Ruby Pinto. 

First Group of Defendants Pass Through Drug Field-Testing Program


Included here is the second quarterly report of the program study committee for the pilot drug field testing program created under 50 ILCS 737/1.

The Cook County Pilot Drug Field-Testing Program was brought about to reduce the average time in jail between arrest and preliminary hearing for individuals arrested on drug charges. Advocacy for the project began with Chicago Appleseed’s policy brief in 2013 which led to collaborations with community groups, negotiation with stakeholder agencies, and, ultimately, passage of the law.

Historically in Cook County, those charged with drug possession have had to wait 24 days on average just to get to a preliminary hearing at which a judge determines probable cause. Other cases involving more serious crimes (including crimes of violence) get to their preliminary hearings within 8 to 12 days.

In 2013, judges in Cook County determined that 27 percent of drug possession cases — 6,116 — were not supported by probable cause and dismissed those cases at their preliminary hearings. A substantial portion of these individuals were being held in jail the entire time that they waited for their preliminary hearings at a huge cost to taxpayers.

In 2010, for example, there were 5,000 detainees at the jail each day awaiting preliminary hearings on drug charges.

This quarter has seen the first group of individuals pass through the program, which currently exist in the 6th police district in Chicago.

  • A total of ninety-four (94) individuals have been admitted to custody (for at least 1 day according to Cook County State’s Attorney Office records) subject to a drug field test from the 6th district.
  • The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has directed its Assistant State’s Attorneys to request preliminary hearing dates one week from the time of the bond hearing (which is typically one day after arrest) for those coming in through the pilot program. The ~7 day time to preliminary hearing represents a significant reduction from the current average time to preliminary hearing which is 17 days.
  • Of the 94 individuals admitted to custody under the program, 15 have been in custody long enough to be affected by the shorter time to preliminary hearing (they have had stays of longer than 7 days). The cases of these 15 are either ongoing or resolved at some point after preliminary hearing.
  • 79 of the 94 individuals left custody at some point before their preliminary hearing or other next court date (in case of misdemeanors). These individuals left custody either by posting bond, being given an I-bond (personal recognizance), or being given electronic monitoring.

Questions for the program study committee going forward include how much the 15 positively affected individuals represent a cost-savings for the County, whether the number is deflated due to lower arrest rates, and how many more individuals would be passing through the program if it were expanded city-wide.




Visitation at Cook County Jail – Part 2

Approximately 100,000 people are admitted into Cook County Jail every year, which maintains an average daily population of about 7,500. When a family member finds out that their loved one has been detained at the jail, their first response may be to attempt to visit as soon as possible. This process can be very challenging to navigate however, and often friends and family encounter setbacks that make gaining and maintaining access to visitation incredibly difficult and sometimes impossible.

To find out more, Cook County Justice Watch spoke to Patty Cloud about her experience with visitation at the jail. Cloud is a member of Progressive Community Church and has been visiting incarcerated members of the church’s congregation since 2011. In the first segment of this series, Patty talked about the process of being cleared for visitation, which involves locating the inmate and being placed on their visitor list, submitting a visitor application and clearing a background check.


Here, Patty talks about her experience on visiting day. Cook County Jail is located at 26th Street and California Avenue. While it is accessible by public transportation, the trip can be exhausting, especially for families with small children and elderly visitors. Once visitors arrive, they must wait outside, exposed to the elements, with nowhere to sit. Often, people will wait in line for hours only to find out that they have not been cleared for visitation, or that the division they were planning to visit has been placed on lockdown and will not be receiving visitors that day.

Patty also describes the experience of holding a conversation with an inmate through a metal grate like the ones shown below. These grates prohibit eye contact while speaking, making communication and connection difficult. Patty questions if this kind of restrictive environment is necessary to maintain safety and order in the jail.

Visitation booths with metal grates to speak through.

In the final segment of this series, we’ll share Patty’s thoughts on how the visitation process might be improved in order to make visits more accessible and beneficial for inmates and their loved ones. If you’ve had experience with visitation at the Cook County Jail, please share your story with us in the comments section below. Subscribe to follow these segments.

Seven Escape From Illinois Jail in Two Days
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Interview footage shot and produced by Rachel Hoffman.

Interview conducted by Ruby Pinto. 


Visitation at Cook County Jail – Part 1

During an inmate’s time at Cook County Jail, a visit from a friend or loved one can mean a world of difference. A study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that prisoners who received at least one personal visit at any time during their incarceration were 13 percent less likely to commit another felony and 25 percent less likely to end up back in prison on a technical parole violation. Data showed that the more visits prisoners received, the lower their chance of recidivating after release. Visits can help to improve the morale and well-being of both inmates and their loved ones and maintain personal connections that prove to be crucial during re-entry.

However, gaining and maintaining access to visitation rights can be difficult, especially for those without access to resources and flexible schedules. Potential visitors must fill out an application and submit to a background check. They must also be in contact with the inmate they wish to visit, in order to be placed on the inmate’s visitation list. An online Inmate Locator may be used to find out where an inmate has been placed.

To find out more about the experience of visiting an inmate at Cook County Jail, we spoke to Patty Cloud, a member of Progressive Community Church. Patty has been visiting incarcerated members of the church’s congregation since 2011, and is involved in religious volunteer work in the Cook County DOC. We will publish a total of three segments on visitation, each covering a different aspect of Patty’s experience. In this first segment, Patty talks about gaining access to visitation, the challenges she and others have encountered throughout the process, and the impact that this process has on families.

Next week, Cook County Justice Watch will share Patty’s experience on visiting day, including the wait to see an inmate and the process of communicating during the visit. Subscribe to follow these segments.

A gate visitors enter during visitation at Cook County Jail


Interview footage shot and produced by Rachel Hoffman.

Interview conducted by Ruby Pinto.