Cook County Bond Court Part 1: The Gatekeepers
This is the first of a multi-part series on Central Bond Court. Over the coming weeks we will be sharing the experiences of those going through the Cook County Bond Court system and the efforts to reform it.
Below is an anonymized letter recounting the difficulties of a relative of an individual going through the Bond Court. The letter includes descriptions of the shockingly oppressive system that individuals have to go through to post bond, where those posting are treated like detainees themselves. The letter has been edited slightly to preserve the anonymity of the detained individual and the writer.
[Clarification: In the letter below, the individual was given an ‘I’ Bond (a release on personal recognizance) with electronic monitoring (an anklet or similar device with restrictions on movement). The bond money posted was to remove the electronic monitoring.]
I am writing this letter to describe to you my recent experience with the bail and bonding system operated in Cook County, Illinois by the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County and the Sheriff of Cook County.
On July 22, 2015, my 69 year-old family member (whom I will refer to as “Mr. Doe” to protect his anonymity) was arrested by the Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) and charged with a single felony count. Because the case remains pending, and because the nature of the charge is irrelevant to the matters discussed in this letter, I will provide no further details regarding the allegations against Mr. Doe.
Mr. Doe was in the custody of the CPD, at the First District Station, overnight from July 22, 2015 through July 23, 2015. Mr. Doe was scheduled to attend a hearing at Central Bond Court, Room 101 of the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building, on July 23, 2015 at 1:30 p.m.
On July 23, 2015, Mr. Doe was transported by the CPD to the Leighton Building for his bond hearing. At or about that time, he was remanded to the custody of the Cook County Department of Corrections (“CCDOC”), at which point the difficult reality of Cook County’s bond system began in earnest.
The July 23, 2015 Central Bond Court was presided over by Judge Adam Bourgeois. I was present in Court during the hearing, and observed the operation of the courtroom as a number of defendants were called before the Court. Judge Bourgeois was a perfect representation of the entire bond process in this jurisdiction: perfunctory, disrespectful, and at once both inattentive and vindictive. I can think of no worse gate-keeper for the criminal justice system in Cook County.
Judge Bourgeois was disrespectful to both the accused and their counsel. He did not allow counsel to complete statements on behalf of their clients; he often raised his voice, and generally behaved as if it were an inconvenience to him for the accused to be represented at all. Perhaps more egregiously, Judge Bourgeois offered a personal commentary on the accused and their alleged crimes to each of those who appeared before him—effectively offering a prejudged opinion on the accused and his alleged crimes, delivered directly from the bench and based not on any facts or law, but merely on Judge Bourgeois’ reaction to the charge sheet read to him moments earlier by the Assistant State’s Attorney. Judge Bourgeois’ conduct leaves one with the distinct impression that in his Court, one is guilty (of something) until proven otherwise, and the bond set is merely the first of many punishments that an accused will face.
In the case of Mr. Doe (who was represented by experienced counsel), Judge Bourgeois directed a comment at the defendant beginning with the words “You Americans,” as if he were the representative of a foreign occupation. He did not allow Mr. Doe’s counsel to adequately state his arguments regarding the appropriate amount of bond, and instead threatened counsel (with what, it was unclear, but one assumes contempt, since Judge Bourgeois indicated that counsel would join his client in the courtroom’s cell) when an objection was raised to the manner in which Judge Bourgeois was addressing the case. Judge Bourgeois directed that Mr. Doe be released on a $100,000 “I” bond, but added that he should be forced to submit to electronic monitoring. There was no explanation for why electronic monitoring was warranted or necessary in this case, and Judge Bourgeois permitted no discussion of the issue.
Throughout the proceedings, there appeared to be no principled basis for the setting of bonds. I certainly could not discern the decision-making process used in setting an appropriate bond. Although it appears that some effort is made to take into account prior criminal history, it is unclear how much that factor is taken into account. The charged offense also appears to be considered, but again, what weight it is given is unclear. Judge Bourgeois certainly offered no explanation for his seemingly capricious rulings, and I could glean no consistency. The law and the courts that administer it should offer consistency and predictability. Bond court in Cook County exhibits neither.
The law in Illinois permits that in lieu of electronic monitoring, a defendant may instead post 10% of his bond amount. Thus, although Judge Bourgeois allowed Mr. Doe released on an “I” bond, he effectively reversed that by forcing a 69 year old non-violent defendant with deep roots in the community to choose between the burden of electronic monitoring or posting bond. Mr. Doe chose the latter. I arranged to fund the $10,000 bond amount and in fact posted that amount, as described below.
After Mr. Doe’s (brief) bond hearing concluded at approximately 1:45 p.m., he would be held in custody by the CCDOC in the Cook County Jail (“the Jail”) for approximately another 12 hours.
I arrived at the Jail to post the necessary bond at approximately 3:30 p.m. Bond is posted inside the Jail itself. It was and is unclear to me why this is so, and why it is not located in a more public and accessible location. In order to approach Division 5 to post bond, one must submit to the full rigors of screening for the Jail. That includes divesting oneself of everything besides the bond payment, a photo-identification, and clothing. No reading material is permitted. No mobile phones or other such devices are permitted. Although such protocols may be sensible when applied to persons visiting inmates, they are not sensible when applied to free members of the public who are about to be forced to endure countless hours in a bare uncomfortable room. One of the simplest ways to reform the bond system would simply be to move it out of the Jail.
Once inside the Jail, those arriving to post bond are directed to a room in the Division 5 area. The room itself was stark and uncomfortable. It features rows of plastic chairs, two vending machines, pay telephones, and a “children’s play area.” A large plastic cooler contained rather sour-tasting water and, for the first two hours of my visit, no cups. Despite having already passed through security screening, permission to use the restrooms had to be asked and one was made to again walk through a metal detector (although no one seemed to care when or if the detector went off). I was particularly disturbed to see, in this captive environment, an ATM and electronic money transfer kiosk, as well as marketing materials for the company that appears to own or operate the machine, as if the CCDOC or the Clerk of the Court was endorsing such products or services. Finally, it is noteworthy that the room in which persons are forced to wait before posting bond is the same room through which inmates of the Jail were being periodically released.
Upon arrival, I waited in line to speak to the clerk at the desk. At this point, as throughout much of the rest of the process, it was unclear to me what precisely I was doing, for what reason I was doing it, and what result I should expect. After being called to the desk at approximately 4:00 p.m. and identifying myself and Mr. Doe as the person for whom I wished to post bond, I was told that I would have to wait because Mr. Doe was “not booked into the system yet.” This was the first of many opaque references to “systems” that I would encounter that evening. The clerk informed me that it could be anywhere from five minutes to two hours before Mr. Doe appeared in “the system.” So I waited. During this time, I was not permitted to wait outside in the fresh air and daylight. The only means of communication available are pay telephones. I could not leave the facility. I was not permitted to bring reading material or other materials into the facility. In effect, I, too, was incarcerated while I waited for my turn to post bond.
Throughout my time in this room, there were anywhere between 12 and 20 others waiting under similar circumstances. I was troubled that many of those people were present on my arrival, and remained after my departure. At one point, a woman who had been waiting when I arrived began to complaint and was directed to supervisor, who came out to speak to her. As I could hear, the supervisor appeared to offer little in the way of explanation.
At 6:00 p.m., after two hours of waiting, I was called by the clerk and informed that Mr. Doe had finally appeared “in the system.” I then waited for an additional hour and 45 minutes until I was called to post bond for Mr. Doe. At this point, I was informed that another “system” had “gone down,” this one used for checking detainees for any other outstanding criminal warrants before their release on bond. I was informed that I would be permitted to post the bond, but if the “system” reported any outstanding warrants or issues, Mr. Doe would not be released. Because I had personal knowledge that Mr. Doe had no criminal history, I proceeded to post the bond. However, it was unclear to me why a person who had been in the custody of three different law enforcement agencies, and whose criminal background history had already been checked at least twice, should be subjected to a further review prior to his release.
I was handed a form document with carbon copies attached and instructed to wait in another line to actually post the bond. I presented a clerk behind thick glass with the form and a cashier’s check for the bond money. I signed a form that I did not fully understand, and was then told to present it back at the desk to the clerk. After having done so, I was then instructed to leave, and that Mr. Doe would be allowed one telephone call prior to his release.
I left the Jail at 8:00 p.m., over four hours after I had arrived. During that time, I do not believe that I observed an average of one or two persons per hour be permitted to post bond. I received a telephone call from Mr. Doe at approximately 12:30 a.m. on July 24, 2015, in which he informed me that he was to be released. His actual release occurred 30 minutes later, at 1:00 a.m., over 36 hours after his initial detention.
In many ways, the bond system creates a dual system of incarceration: the inmate is detained in the Jail, and the family member or friend is detained at the bond desk. In other contexts, this kind of confinement of free persons is not permitted. For example, if a group of persons were kept under similar circumstances on an airplane, there would be national news stories and general outrage at the treatment of these people. But for the CCDOC and the Clerk of the Court who operate the bond system, this is a standard daily occurrence.
Moreover, the inefficiencies and waste the system causes are unacceptable. An individual is incarcerated, and therefore unable to earn money or to put his time to productive use. Concurrently, the bond system requires that, to obtain the release of an inmate, another individual give his or her time to post that bond. Many of these individuals, who do not necessarily have access to paid time off, will not be paid during these periods in which they wait to post bond. Thus there is a disproportionately negative impact on those in a lower socioeconomic status. The economic loss engendered by this system is threefold: (1) the loss due to the incarceration of the accused; (2) the loss due to the time that a friend or family member must spend in the bond process; and (3) the cost of the bond amount itself. Again, this is unacceptable.
As an attorney concerned with the proper administration of justice, as a family member who has navigated this system on behalf of an accused person, and as a citizen and taxpayer, it is clear to me that something must be done to reform the bond system operated in Cook County. I would be eager to lend my time and talents to any such efforts, and very much hope that you are aware of the difficult situation that occurs every day in this jurisdiction.