The Chicago Community Bond Fund Is Taking On Cash Bond One Person at a Time
Part 3 in our series on bond court in Cook County.
As Public Defender Amy Campanelli continues to push for the necessary reforms to bond court as described in Part 2 of our series, individuals continue to be caught up in unnecessary pre-trial detention simply because they lack the resources to get out. Now, one group of Chicagoans is taking it upon themselves to pay bond for some of the thousands of people in Cook County Jail (CCJ) who have been granted bond but are unable to afford it. The Chicago Community Bond Fund is a new non-profit organization dedicated to ending the use of monetary bond in Illinois, and working to get people out of Cook County Jail in the meantime.
The basic problems with money bond
As has been well-known for a while, and as CCBF itself pointed out in a recent AREA Chicago article, cash bond is not good public safety policy. Despite claims that monetary bond ensures defendants return to court and discourages commission of new crimes, supporting evidence for those claims is weak to non-existent. For example, Washington, D.C. eliminated use of monetary bond decades ago, and instead established a Pretrial Services Agency (PSA) that uses risk assessment to make release decisions. Once released, defendants are supported by services that further increase their chances of succeeding while awaiting trial. A 2013 BJA funded study of unsecured bonds by the Pretrial Justice Institute found that unsecured bonds are as effective as secured bonds at both ensuring court appearance and achieving public safety goals such as avoiding re-arrest.
Though the benefits of using monetary bond are hard to confirm, the harms of pretrial detention are obvious and well-documented. People who are incarcerated simply because they cannot pay an often arbitrary amount of money may lose their jobs, housing, and even custody of their children. Family and community connections are damaged, the defendant is less able to participate in their own defense, and the chances of being convicted increase. Detained defendants who are convicted also receive significantly longer sentences than defendants who were not detained pretrial. Each one of these outcomes further decreases the defendant’s chances of future success and increases recidivism. In a review of over 150,000 criminal cases in Kentucky, the Arnold Foundation found that defendants who are detained “are over four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and over three times more likely to be sentenced to prison than defendants who are released at some point pending trial.” Perhaps the most compelling result of studying the impact of pretrial detention is the fact that when low- and moderate-risk defendants are detained even a few days, the odds of recidivation significantly increase. (Source.)
“Non-financial conditional release, based on the history, characteristics, and reliability of the defendant, is more effective than financial release conditions. Reliance on money bail discriminates against indigent defendants and cannot effectively address the need for release conditions that protect the public. Pro-social interventions that address substance disorders, employment, housing, medical, educational, and mental health issues afford defendants the opportunity for personal improvement and decrease the likelihood of criminal behavior.” – Guiding Principles of the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia
Who is in Cook County Jail?
Cook County Jail is no outlier by national standards. Frequently referred to as the largest single-site jail in the country, CCJ has around 70,000 admission every year. Like most jails, the vast majority of CCJ’s population is pre-trial. In early October 2015, fully 95% of CCJ inmates were awaiting trial. The vast majority of those behind bars were technically eligible for bond as set by a judge but were simply unable to afford it. In fact, over 150 of the nearly 9,000 people incarcerated in CCJ at that time needed to post only $500 or less in bond in order to be released. Also like most jails, CCJ is disproportionately Black. Despite the fact that only 24% of Cook County residents are African American, CCJ’s population was 73% Black in October 2015.
Introducing the Bond Fund
Chicago Community Bond Fund’s mission is, quite simply, to help people get out of CCJ. Growing out of a grassroots effort to bond out five activists arrested at an August 2014 community vigil for Desean Pittman, CCBF has now set its sights on less obviously political pretrial detainees. The group of activists, attorneys, and community members has established a revolving bond fund that will pay bond for people who simply cannot pay it themselves. In their words, “paying bond … restores the presumption of innocence before trial and enables recipients to remain free while fighting their cases.” CCBF also plans to conduct teach-ins and other public education “about the role of bond in the criminal legal system and [advocate] for the abolition of money bond.”
Watch the short video below to hear CCBF co-founder Jeanette Wince speaking at the launch party on November 21, 2015. Jeanette begins by discussing how she and other family members raised bond money for those arrested in August 2014 by throwing house parties and holding raffles.
So far, CCBF has been focused on creating organizational structure and establishing guidelines for operation. Nevertheless, the group has found time to continue supporting broader causes of criminal justice reform and racial justice. After the release of the video showing a Chicago police officer shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times on November 24th, CCBF quickly established a bond fund for protesters who took to the street demanding justice and accountability. Now, CCBF has joined a coalition of groups to raise money to post bond for Naomi Freeman, a young Black mother in Cook County Jail after killing her abusive partner.
CCBF’s Adventures Posting Bond
On December 3rd, CCBF posted bond for their first client, and their experience reveals a lot about the hurdles ordinary Chicagoans face when trying to post bond for a loved one. Two CCBF members, Max and Ash, headed to Cook County Jail around 2pm on an ordinary Thursday. When Ash attempted to post bond, he was told that CCBF’s client, R., was serving a sentence and thus could not be bonded out. When Ash tried to ask questions, knowing that R. had not yet been sentenced, he was given no further information. The clerk merely repeated the same thing multiple times, and conveyed to Ash that R. would be released when her sentence was over in March 2016.
After calling R’s attorney and confirming that she had not yet been sentenced and was, in fact, eligible for bond, Max and Ash tried to figure out why the system was reporting an incorrect status. By chance, Max saw someone from the public defender’s office who he knew from when he interned there as a law student. That person was able to contact her supervisor in the public defender’s office, who in turn contacted a supervisor over in the bond posting office. Eventually, a little over an hour later, the county employees were changing shifts, so Ash sat in the office for 30 minutes while the shift change took place. After two more system errors and separate 15-20 minute delays, Ash was finally able to post bond around 5pm, and R. finally walked out of CCJ nearly 4 hours later (approximately 7 hours after Ash first tried to post bond). He noted that as a non-attorney with no special access to supervisors or court records, he would never have been able to correct the system error that reported R’s status as sentenced instead of pre-trial. During his time in the waiting room, Ash saw several people turned away from posting bond entirely and delayed due to system errors. As is unfortunately often the case in Cook County, it was only as a result of special access and connections—and those mostly the result of Max’s status as an attorney—that Max and Ash were eventually able to post R.’s bond.
You can read more about CCBF’s client R and their other recent news in their newsletter.