Calls for reform as bond courts place heavy burden on Chicago’s poorest citizens

By Miles Painter

South Shore resident Lavette Mayes says she never thought much about the criminal justice system before her arrest in 2013.

“I only ever went down there for jury duty,” Mayes said during an interview in her Aunt’s home on South Chappel Avenue. A 42-year-old single mother of two, Mayes says she was completely unprepared for the reality of pretrial detention when she received a $250,000 D-Bond for a charge of aggravated battery.

Unable to pay the $25,000 required by her bond, Lavette spent 14 months in Cook County Jail. Eventually her bond fee was reduced to $9,500, and she was able to get out with the assistance of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a non-profit legal organization that covers bond costs for people who cannot afford them, advocates for cash bond reform and attempts to humanize defendants by publishing their stories online.

Cash bonds, the first step in the criminal justice legal process, are designed to ensure a defendant’s attendance in future court dates and to keep dangerous individuals away from the public. However, groups both within and without Cook County’s criminal justice system criticize the practice, saying that many Chicagoans cannot afford to pay the high bond rates, which result in extended jail time for defendants awaiting trial.

A defendant steps into bond court the day after they have been arrested for a felony, and they face a few potential outcomes. The judge could release the defendant on an I-Bond (Personal Recognizance Bond), in which they must appear at the next court date and may be required to remain under house arrest and wear an electronic ankle bracelet. This type of bond does not have an associated fee.

The judge could also issue a D-Bond (Deposit Bond) requiring payment, with the amount up to the judges’ discretion. The defendant must pay 10 percent of the total bond or they will be kept in Cook County Jail until their trial date, which could take months. In some cases where the defendant poses a clear threat, he or she could be held until their trial date with no bond, but that is rare.

An entrance to Cook County Jail (Miles Painter/MEDILL).
An entrance to Cook County Jail (Miles Painter/MEDILL).

The D-Bonds are the major source of criticism. A study released by the Sheriff’s Justice Institute in April found that D-Bonds make up 56 percent of bonds issued by Cook County Judges, and the median bond amount is $40,000. This means most Chicagoans issued a D-Bond are required to amass at least $4,000 to pay their bond or face a stay in jail for weeks or months as they await trial.

In an economic environment in which 47 percent of Americans say they couldn’t scrape together $400 in cash for an emergency, cash bonds present a serious impediment to many defendants hoping for pretrial freedom. Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli sees the results of this every day, as many of her clients languish in Cook County Jail for misdemeanor and low-level felony cases due to an inability to pay.

“Money does not assure that someone is going to come to court,” Campanelli said. “It never has, and it never will.”

Additionally, the Sheriff’s Dept. study found that judges take an average of just 100 seconds to decide a defendant’s prospect of pre-trial freedom.

“There is no chance for individualized representation in this system,” says attorney Ali Abid, who works for legal advocacy group Chicago Appleseed. Abid, who was interviewed in August, says that the sheer volume of legal cases in Cook County exasperates the issue, which results in faster bond decisions than similar courts in the suburbs.

Robert Harmening, acting population manager of Cook County Jail and author of the Sheriff’s Justice Institute study, has told Medill Reports that reform is essential: “This is an obvious problem that needs to be addressed,” he said, before launching into a story about a tour he gave of the jail to Scottish visitors unfamiliar with the system. “I was trying to describe the bond process and they flat out asked me, ‘but what if they are poor and can’t pay?’”

Photo at top: Cook County Courthouse (Miles Painter/MEDILL)