A Letter to the Editor of The Chicago Sun Times

A recent Sun Times editorial shed some much-needed light on the fact that in Cook County, individuals accused of non-violent crimes often spend extended amounts of time behind bars after their initial court appearance simply because they cannot afford bail. The piece highlights statistics that link pre-trial detention to harsher sentencing, as well as the high cost of incarcerating low-risk defendants rather than allowing them to await trial at home. An alternative in-or-out system used in other parts of the nation is also briefly introduced.

The editorial stopped short, however, of covering the process in which this system is already being reformed. Efforts that have been made by the supreme court, county employees, community organizations and other advocates to push for bond court reform were completely ignored. Because of the ongoing effort made by these individuals and groups, some of which are covered in this piece published by the Red Eye, approximately 50% of defendants are currently sent home on I-bonds or electronic monitoring, up from 21% in 2011. This increase is the result of better pretrial services that allow judges to make more informed decisions, as well as an increase in the use of electronic monitoring and the number of I-bonds granted. Other initiatives, such as eliminating the automatic transfer of minors to adult court and preventing the implementation of mandatory minimum laws are currently underway to further ease overincarceration.

Image by Cook County
Image by Cook County

The Sun Times article does focus on one decision maker: newly appointed Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. Governor Rauner’s administration is said to be laying “the groundwork for reforms that will make our criminal justice system fairer and more cost-effective.” But what does that groundwork look like, and how will it work? Rauner has the ability to make some initial executive orders that will get the process started. Ali Abid, the Criminal Justice Policy Analyst at Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, says parole violations are an obvious first step.

“Currently approximately 700 people being held in the Cook County Jail are there for technical violations of parole, just waiting to be transferred back to the Illinois Department Of Corrections. Due to the relatively unserious nature of most of their violations they would likely be re-released from prison soon after being reprocessed. But until that happens they are stuck in limbo, in the Cook County Jail, with county taxpayers paying the bill. It is within Governor Rauner’s power to release or remove these individuals and, moreover, work to revamp the state’s parole system.” – Ali Abid, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice

Once parole violations are addressed, the governor might further consider the wide scope of his executive abilities. “Governor Rauner should look at his powers broadly in examining what can be done to reduce the state prison and local jail populations,” says Abid.

This issue has been in the hearts and minds of families, young people and clergy for quite some time. At the grassroots level, hundreds of Cook County residents have been organizing around and educating the public on bail/bond reform in recent years. DecarcerateCHI is a task force working with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) that has targeted State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, calling on her to be a leader in reform of bond court and to take on a much stronger role in addressing and eliminating racial disparity that appears throughout the criminal justice system. Tristan Bock-Hughes, a second-year Public Policy student at University of Chicago, is a leader with DecarcerateCHI. He places a high emphasis on the importance of community input and availability of elected officials to their constituents.

Image by DecarcerateCHI
Image by DecarcerateCHI

“The DecarcerateCHI campaign has been working for over a year to achieve the exact kinds of pre-trial reforms to the Cook County system this Sun Times Article suggests. Yet Anita Alvarez has been less than open to even communicating with policy experts and community organizers,” says Bock-Hughes. “It is shameful that organizations like Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, the Indiana Illinois Regional Organizing Network, and Organizing Catholics for Justice had to send months worth of letters, emails, and calls before finally staging multiple protests just to meet with her once. Governor Rauner must learn from the mistakes of politicians like Anita Alvarez and actually meet with the experts that work in these systems day in and day out if any reform is going to be achieved.”

A truly successful reform of the deeply flawed criminal justice system in Cook County and statewide will be one that combines efforts being made on all fronts from executive to grass-roots, and takes into account the needs of communities, taxpayers and those who have been incarcerated and will be impacted most by reform or lack there of.

Ruby Pinto is a leader with SOUL and a contributor to Cook County Justice Watch

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