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Editorial: A report’s flaws suggest: Cook County bail reforms may have endangered the public

Thursday, February 13, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

Delivering fair criminal justice outcomes in Cook County, home to one of the largest court systems in the country, is a balancing act: Preserve the rights of defendants but also protect the public.

A significant bail reform effort intended to elevate the rights of the low-income accused had logic and fairness on its side when it was launched in September 2017. But now it appears the reforms went too far by allowing the no-cash bond release of a disturbing number of felony defendants who then committed new crimes, including murder.

Evans’ analysis falls short

Can we say with certainty that the pendulum has swung too far and put the public in unnecessary danger? No, but a new Tribune investigation shows that an in-house analysis used by the Cook County courts to justify bail reform is incomplete and conflicted. This is a serious problem. Any time the criminal justice system changes the calculus for who is allowed out of jail, the findings better be accurate so the impact can be understood. Otherwise the public is right to question whether judges are making sound decisions.

In September 2017, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans instructed his judges to relax certain bail requirements when defendants appeared before them and to consider nonmonetary bond when possible. The idea was to promote equity in the system — to make sure defendants sitting in Cook County Jail awaiting resolution of their cases weren’t there because they were too poor to afford bail. Remember, they are accused of crimes, not convicted.

Evans’ order involved risk. Two years post-reform, the number of felony defendants released on no-cash bonds rose to more than 15,000 from about 7,500. Those who did have to post bond paid a lot less, a median amount of about $1,000 compared with $5,000, a report last year from Evans’ office determined.

Evans assured the public the relaxed reforms were not putting citizens at added risk. Defendants released back to their neighborhoods were, by and large, not committing violent crimes, he said. He backed up his assertions with a 2019 analysis of the program that his office put together and for which he received national publicity for the softer approach toward defendants.

That analysis, however, cherry-picked data and omitted damaging information. The public has not known the full story — until now.

21 defendants — not 3 — later accused of murder

An investigation by Tribune reporters David Jackson, Todd Lighty and Gary Marx, published Thursday, raises questions about the results of Evans’ September 2017 order and the 2019 report justifying it. Of particular concern: When evaluating whether defendants committed new crimes after release, Evans’ office didn’t count a host of very serious crimes: domestic battery, assault, assault with a deadly weapon, reckless homicide, armed violence and others.

Once those crimes were added to the re-offense category, the reporters found a fourfold increase in the numbers of defendants who allegedly recommitted violent crimes while released under Evans’ program. To not count domestic battery charges as new offenses? Or assaults with a deadly weapon? Wave goodbye to the credibility of the 2019 report. The Tribune identified 21 defendants accused of murder after they were released from custody under Evans’ looser bond rules. Evans had reported only three such homicide cases.

The reporters hit other stumbling blocks that made evaluating the program difficult:

incomplete court files, mistakes in data entry, the exclusion of certain misdemeanor offenders who then committed felonies, and non-apples-to-apples comparisons Evans had used to evaluate defendants’ behavior before and after the reforms took effect.

The reporters got stonewalled repeatedly as they tried to gather the facts. That’s an unfortunate yet consistent theme of Evans’ tenure as chief judge. He doesn’t embrace transparency. He has to be pushed in that direction.

We recognize Evans and his colleagues on the bench make swift judgment calls with limited information. They walk an unpredictable line in the exercise of fairness. Defendants who are arrested, charged and detained have rights too.

Bail reform is important. So is public safety.
Six years ago, criminal cases in Cook County were taking too long to wind through the system. A 62-year-old man jailed for six years on a murder charge never got his day in court. He died of natural causes in his cell. Low-level retail theft defendants were stuck

behind bars because they couldn’t afford their bail. That was wrong and we were among the voices calling for fixes.

Public officials who work within the system — Evans, then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — seemed to find appropriate consensus that nonviolent offenders should be routinely considered for electronic monitoring, that bail amounts should be reasonable enough for low-level offenders to afford them, and that judges should be given as much information as possible when deciding whether to bond out defendants or hold them.

Then Evans went a step further and encouraged his judges to ease up on bail altogether. It was a decision that demanded methodical and independent review. It’s worrisome to think it didn’t happen that way. Judges and some prosecutors have told us they are concerned about the defendants walking out the doors at 26th and California, based on the new rules.

Certainly this is clear: Evans’ 2019 report evaluating his own program is deficient and therefore of limited value. Withdraw and redo it, Your Honor.

In light of the Tribune’s reporting, the chief judge needs to allow outside experts to reevaluate the impact of bail protocol changes, past, present and future.

The safety of the public depends on knowing the truth.

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.

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Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

 
 


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