Jail Roulette: Cook County's arbitrary bond court system

{{NOTE}}Fourteen Injustice Watch journalists observed 1,398 bond court cases in six different Cook County courthouses this summer, as part of the continuing Injustice Watch investigation into inequalities at different stages of the justice system. Here is their report.{{/NOTE}}

Every day, a procession of men and women accused of anything from drug possession to murder are shuffled through Cook County’s central bond court, their fates resting on a decision that the judges often make in a minute.

The defendants, ranging in number from 20 to over 100 each day, are brought in rapid-fire succession to learn whether they will be released or forced to wait in Cook County Jail for the outcome of their cases.

Two men on back-to-back days last July stood before different judges after being charged with nearly identical crimes committed 16 hours apart. The men, Lamont Jackson and Curtis Brown, both in their late forties, were stopped by police a few miles apart in different Chicago West Side neighborhoods. Each was accused of possessing $10 worth of heroin, a low-level felony.

Jackson and Brown scored similarly on the county’s evidence-based pretrial risk-assessment tool, which is intended to predict the likelihood a defendant will skip court or commit another crime if released.


On July 11, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Peggy Chiampas gave Jackson, 47, a bail that would allow him to be released without posting any money if he remained confined to his home on electronic monitoring; or, if Jackson preferred, he could post $1,000 — 10 percent of the $10,000 bail that Chiampas set — and he could be released without monitoring. (Illinois requires defendants to post 10 percent of bail, either in cash or secured property, to be released pending disposition of the charges.)

Brown was arrested two hours before Jackson’s hearing. His case came up the following day before Cook County Judge Laura M. Sullivan, who set Brown’s bail at $20,000, twice as high as Jackson’s, with no option for electronic monitoring. That meant that Brown, 48, either would post $2,000 bond or would wait in jail for his case to make its way through the court system.

It is, as an ongoing study by Injustice Watch reveals, a strikingly arbitrary system under which defendants’ fates — whether they are released or held in jail — depend on which judge they happen to draw and what the judge’s mood happens to be at the time.


Fourteen Injustice Watch journalists, divided into teams, spent weeks in the six Cook County courthouses where bond hearings are held.

The teams found a system riddled with inconsistency, with bail decisions appearing victim to capriciousness and chance.

The bail system has alarmed Cook County officials in recent years, with hundreds of men and women charged with nonviolent crimes clogging Cook County Jail every day simply because they could not raise the bond that judges required them to pay for their release while they awaited trial; but many obstacles have thwarted efforts by officials to effect change.

The arbitrary nature of the bail system has been cited in past studies by, among others, the League of Women Voters and the Cook County Sheriff. Those studies were based on data collected before the central bond court had “fully implemented” last spring a tool designed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, intended to provide judges an objective measure of the risk that someone would pose a danger or flee if released before trial.

Injustice Watch teams reviewed the process after the chief judge’s office said the tool was fully in use in central bond court, at 26th and California, and judges in the suburban courts were being trained in its use. What the Injustice Watch teams documented: Though the population in the jail is declining, and more people are being released without being required to post cash bond, the system remains hobbled by arbitrariness, and those accused of nonviolent crimes are still routinely expected to raise cash or wait in jail for their day in court.

“We saw and continue to see tremendous disparities that result in widespread injustices,” said Cara Smith, chief policy adviser to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, of the county’s bond court.

In October, two defendants sued the Cook County judges and the sheriff, contending that it violates the constitution to hold defendants in custody before their trials simply because they lack the money that other accused defendants can post. One of the plaintiffs named in the suit, Zachary Robinson, was jailed for 10 months after he was charged with stealing a laptop and was unable to post the required $1,000 to secure his release while his case was pending.

The decisions bond court judges make can have a substantial impact on a defendant’s life. Defendants who are given bonds they cannot afford wait out their cases in custody. Some lose their jobs and income needed to pay for housing and other expenses. Pretrial detention can put a strain on the defendants’ families, as they lose a parent or a breadwinner. Research has shown that defendants held in custody are more likely to end up convicted of crimes, often by pleading guilty to get out of jail, than those who are freed as they await trial.

The issue of bail has long been boiling, exacerbating jail overcrowding and causing many defendants awaiting trial on nonviolent crimes to remain confined. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle turned for help in 2012 to the Illinois Supreme Court. In 2014, the state high court identified a series of steps to improve the system, measures including the risk-assessment tool that have gradually been enacted.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli and Sheriff Tom Dart have embraced the call to end the system of cash bail, which they contend improperly determines who sits in jail based on their wealth. Not only do the poor who pose no risk remain locked up, Campanelli notes, but those who pose a risk often end up released before trial because they had access to money to secure their release.

Dart this month announced he would push state legislators to end the use of cash bail in Illinois. “The system itself is not working, and we need to change that,” Dart said at a news conference.

Among the speakers at a public hearing before the criminal justice committee of the Cook County Board of Commissioners this month, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Truman A. Morrison described how things have worked since officials there stopped requiring cash years ago as a condition for release. “There is not a woman or man wearing a robe in the District of Columbia who would ever dream of returning to the dark, dysfunctional, and radically unfair days of deciding personal freedom by dollar bills,” Morrison testified.

The committee chair, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, said during the hearing that because “cash bond privileges those with financial resources over those without, our courts exacerbate inequality rather than offering defendants true equality before the law.”

For now, however, judges are bound to follow the state statute, which lists three dozen factors that judges are to take into account as they quickly decide whether defendants should be released before trial, and under what conditions.

For Jackson and Brown, the defendants arrested 16 hours apart, the variance in their bonds ended up making little difference in their experience awaiting trial.

Jackson, who was ordered released on electronic monitoring by Chiampas, made several calls to find a place to stay while being monitored, according to the sheriff’s office. Jackson was unable to find anyone who would let him stay in their home, and therefore could not be admitted to the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program. He did not post the $1,000 required for his release and instead sat in jail awaiting his trial.

Brown, required to post $2,000 by Judge Sullivan, also remained in jail as his case made its way through the criminal justice system.


{{SUB}}Different judge, different outcome{{/SUB}}

Bond courts are run daily throughout Cook County, giving those arrested the chance for a quick hearing before a judge to determine if they should be held for further proceedings, and under what conditions. Those arrested in the city on felony charges are taken to the bond court inside the Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th and California, adjoining the jail, where defense attorneys and pretrial services interview them, collect prior arrest data, and prepare for the rapid hearings each afternoon. Those arrested on misdemeanors on weekdays are held in local police stations for hearings in district courthouses within those station houses.

In the city’s five suburban courthouses, which handle far fewer cases each day, judges hear misdemeanor cases in the morning and then felony cases each afternoon.

On weekends, the suburban courthouses are closed, so those arrested are taken to the main courthouse. The judge on duty holds the initial hearing for all misdemeanor and felony cases throughout the county.

Injustice Watch reporters watched the initial hearings for more than 1,398 defendants arrested over a six-week period on weekdays this summer, including felonies in central bond court and a mix of misdemeanors and felonies in the suburbs. In addition, the reporters observed all hearings on some weekends.

Injustice Watch reporters also sat in bond court over the three-day Veteran’s Day weekend, when judges considered misdemeanor charges as well as felony charges filed against suspects arrested across the county.

The team observed 18 different judges preside over the bond hearings. They found:


No two defendants facing a judge are exactly the same, as each individual has different evidence presented by an assistant state’s attorney in court and different criminal backgrounds. But over the course of six weeks, Injustice Watch found that the judges oversaw a similar breakdown of cases. Thirty to 40 percent of the cases each judge set bonds for involved defendants charged with felony possession of drugs, and close to three-quarters of the cases per judge were for nonviolent crimes.

Chiampas, Bourgeois, and Sullivan did not return requests for comment. Nor did the Chief Judge’s office respond to repeated requests for comment.


Hundreds of suspects who are charged only with nonviolent crimes are locked up on any given day, including many who sit in jail, held until they post cash bail, after being arrested on misdemeanors, the sheriff’s jail population records show.

Injustice Watch reporters observed great disparity in how judges handled misdemeanor cases in bond court.

Of 40 misdemeanor cases Judge Chiampas heard on Friday, Nov. 11, the judge set cash bail for 28 of the defendants, released one defendant without conditions, and ruled the remaining 11 could be released to electronic monitoring.

But the next day, Circuit Court Judge Joseph D. Panarese required none of the 79 misdemeanor defendants to post cash bond. Panarese released 69 suspects without requiring any bond and released 10 suspects on electronic monitoring.

On Sunday, Chiampas was back on the bench. She required 47 of 79 defendants to post cash in order to be released; another 17 were ordered released on electronic monitoring, and 15 were released without conditions.

{{PULL RIGHT}}“The system itself is not working, and we need to change that.” {{ATTRIBUTION}}Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart{{/ATTRIBUTION}} {{/PULL}}

That disparity coincides with data on misdemeanors that the Cook County public defender’s office, which staffs the bond court, collected between August and October in weekend bond court. Though the public defender declined to identify the judges by name, the results are stark:

Judge A released about 86 percent of suspects without requiring any cash bond, and 13 percent of defendants on electronic monitoring. Only one percent of suspects were given a bail that required them to post bond to be released.

Judge B released 25 percent of defendants without requiring any cash bond and released no one on electronic monitoring, ordering 75 percent of suspects to post bond to be released.

Judge C released 21 percent of suspects, ordered 17 percent on electronic monitoring and required 62 percent of defendants to post bond in order to be released.

Judge D released roughly half of suspects, and required the other half to post bond in order to be released. Judge D issued no defendants released on electronic monitoring.

Judge E released 23 percent of people, ordered 21 percent on electronic monitoring, and required about 56 percent of people to post bond to be released from jail.

“Of the five, you could probably say only one judge, in my opinion, is doing the right thing,” Public Defender Campanelli said, citing the 99 percent of defendants charged with misdemeanors whom judge A ordered to be released without money or on electronic monitoring.


{{SUB}}The bond court machine{{/SUB}}

In the moments before the 1:30 p.m. felony bond court begins each weekday, a stream of attorneys, many lugging carts filled with files, enters the Leighton Criminal Courthouse room that holds the county’s largest bond call. Friends and relatives of the day’s defendants find their seats among five rows of wooden benches, many perching anxiously while an assistant public defender hands out copies of an infographic detailing the bond-court process. “Please behave as if you are in a church,” the paper warns. It also instructs family members to stand during their loved one’s hearing so “the judge knows that you are present,” and to “not react to what you see and hear — it could have a negative impact on the bond process for your loved one.”

The newly accused are typically brought before the judge, have bail set, and then taken back into the holding cells behind the courtroom’s doors in about 90 seconds. It is a “cattle call,” said one assistant public defender previously assigned to the courtroom.

For each case, the judge calls forward the defendant, most still wearing the clothes from the time of their arrest, and states the new charges.

Armed with a massive pile of files — one for each defendant — the assistant state’s attorney reads aloud the charges and, based on what the police listed in the arrest report, the evidence of guilt. The prosecutor also provides a brief history of the defendant’s past arrests and prior convictions. Sometimes the prosecutor will request a large cash bail or special conditions, if the assistant state’s attorney is concerned about a defendant’s past criminal history or considers the defendant likely to flee.

The judge then looks to the pretrial services department, a group of three men and women who sit at a desk to the far right side of the judge in chairs donned with white lettering peeling off the word “pretrial.”

One of them calls out two numbers from the risk-assessment tool: the likelihood a defendant will commit another crime if released, and the likelihood the defendant will fail to show up for future court dates. Sometimes the defendant is flagged for new violent criminal activity, which the staff person mentions quickly to the judge along with a brief suggestion for conditions for release including everything from pretrial reporting to electronic monitoring.

Next, the public defender rattles off information about the defendants: where he or she went to school, how long the person has been employed and living in the neighborhood, how many children the accused has, and other details to show a defendant is stable and not a flight risk.

The defendants almost never speak.

{{PULL LEFT}}“When you do something long enough, you assume that’s the only way you can do it.” {{ATTRIBUTION}} Loyola University Chicago criminologist David Olson{{/ATTRIBUTION}} {{/PULL}}

The process is quick and ends abruptly: The judge sets bond, sometimes even before hearing what the public defender has to say. The defendant is then escorted out, and the next case is called.

Injustice Watch reporters happened to be watching bond hearings on a day last December when the case of Zachary Robinson was called. Robinson was charged with stealing a laptop computer from the City Colleges of Chicago, Kennedy-King campus. Police contended the incident was caught on tape.

Judge Chiampas, who was presiding, announced that she was ordering Robinson to be confined to his home on electronic monitoring.

As Robinson walked to exit the courtroom, he made a noise. Chiampas quickly called him back to the bench and reset his bail to $10,000. In the months that followed, Robinson would remain unable to post the $1,000 bond required for his release.

Still locked up 10 months later, Robinson became one of the two Cook County Jail inmates who filed suit in October challenging the legality of confining people awaiting trial to jail based on whether or not they can raise the cash to be free.

The week after the lawsuit was filed, Robinson was released when bond was posted for him. His case remains pending.

Families and friends of those charged with crimes in the last 24 hours sometimes wait hours, sitting on the courtroom’s stiff wooden benches for this process to unfold.

Slowly, the pews empty as mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and other family members hear from the judge whether they’ll have to post money to get their loved ones out of custody. Though warned against making noises at the beginning of court, silent reactions of excitement or disappointment can easily be seen from the crowd. When a cash bond is set far too high for them to pay, relatives leave looking defeated. When the accused is released without having to post cash, friends and family standing up to show their support can be seen giving each other excited glances and thumbs-up gestures.

One by one — disappointed, relieved, or indifferent — the families all leave as the heavy wooden courtroom doors shut behind them.


{{SUB}}Countywide inconsistencies{{/SUB}}

Not only does much rest upon which judge happens to be sitting; Injustice Watch also found sharp contrasts depending on whether defendants are arrested inside or outside the city.

The process in the suburbs, where judges are not handling as many cases, appears far more thoughtful; Injustice Watch’s review found that bond hearings in the five suburban courthouses commonly took between three and 10 minutes, a contrast also found in an earlier study by the League of Women Voters.

At central bond court, judges preside over roughly 50 felony defendants a day on weekdays, a number that can double on the weekends. Judges in Skokie were handling five or fewer bond cases each day as Injustice Watch observed. In Bridgeview, judges commonly heard a dozen or fewer cases a day.

Bridgeview judges often questioned prosecutors, defense attorneys, and defendants. That process seemed to have an impact: Cook County Circuit Court Judge Peter A. Felice repeatedly allowed suspects facing drug- or alcohol-related charges to be free from custody on the condition they pass regular drug testing.

But on occasion, the process is upended. On July 15, the day of a Bridgeview court employee’s retirement party, Felice sped up the process, interrupting the defense attorney and issuing significant cash bonds in several cases.

That day, Antwon Adams, a 27-year-old Chicago resident with no prior convictions in Cook County, stood before Felice. Adams was charged with felony theft and two counts of forgery for allegedly cashing a check belonging to St. Luke’s Hospital for $27,408, and spending the money in Las Vegas. Felice spent roughly three minutes on the case and interrupted assistant public defender Kathryn Vahey as she tried to raise mitigating factors on Adams’s behalf. Felice set bail at $270,000, meaning that Adams would have to post the amount he was accused of stealing in order to be released pending trial.

Weeks later, Adams’s attorneys went back to court citing the reasons bail was improperly high. Adams was the father of three children, including a newborn, and worked as a security guard. Circuit Judge Joan Margaret O’Brien ordered bail reduced to $50,000.

Unable to post $5,000 — the 10 percent bond on the lower amount — Adams remains in jail awaiting a Dec. 6 court date.

Felice did not return requests for comment.

{{SUB}}Taking the risk{{/SUB}}

As local officials including the public defender, the sheriff, and the county board president push to reform the system, Cook County judges began implementing the risk-assessment tool that is intended to make bond-setting more objective. The chief judge’s office began using the tool last year and reported it “fully implemented” in central bond court in late March.

The tool uses a defendant’s criminal history and prior failures to appear in court to determine the likelihood the defendant will commit another crime and return to future court dates.

Don Stemen, chair of the Loyola University Chicago Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, said the tool is an effort to "try to make the decision rational, and not based on demeanor, how the person is dressed, or what he did in the courtroom."

As the tool is being implemented, statistics from Chief Judge Timothy Evans’s office show more suspects are being released without being required to post cash. In the final months before the tool was in use, 42 percent of defendants who were arrested on nonviolent, non-weapons crimes were nevertheless required to post cash bond to be released; in April and May of this year, the first months after the tool was fully implemented, that number fell to 30 percent.

Officials in Evans’s office say that the tool is only one factor to be considered, and that judges are still bound to consider the various factors required by statute. The tool “is just one of the pieces of information,” said Michael Carroll, director of information services for the chief judge’s office.


The sheriff’s office reported this summer that its study of cases on bond court from February and March — months after judges had started using the tool in central bond court, but before it had been fully implemented — showed judges were failing to follow the risk-assessment tool in more than eight of every 10 cases. Almost 40 percent of defendants were required to post cash bond to be released even though the risk assessment showed they were neither likely dangerous nor flight risks.

Injustice Watch observed several cases this summer in which judges set substantial cash bail for defendants whom the pretrial assessment rated low-risk and recommended be released with no conditions.

In the case of Ja’Mal Green, the leader of a police brutality protest in downtown Chicago who was charged with several counts of aggravated battery to a peace officer, Judge Chiampas set a $350,000 bail that required him to post $35,000 to be released, despite low scores on the risk-assessment tool.

Julio Barradas, who stood before Judge Sullivan on multiple drug possession charges, received a $200,000 bail, requiring $20,000, despite scores on the pretrial assessment tool that showed he was neither a flight risk nor dangerous.

Sullivan set bail at $10,000 for Edgar Pena, who was charged with possessing an illegal substance, despite scoring as low-risk for either committing a new crime or failing to appear.

Researchers cite a variety of reasons why judges continue to require so many nonviolent offenders to post cash or wait in jail for their day in court. “When you do something long enough, you assume that’s the only way you can do it,” said David E. Olson, chair of the graduate program at Loyola University Chicago School of Criminal Justice and Criminology. “I think it’s almost just a norm, a tradition. We always did it this way, make people put up money.”

On top of that, Olson said, requiring defendants to post bond or sit in jail helps shield the judge from criticism if a released defendant commits a new crime: “The judge can later show the public, ‘Well, I required they posted bail, therefore I did what I could.’”

Notably, many of those who are ordered to post bond end up spending time in custody because of charges that end up dismissed. According to the sheriff’s office, as many as one in every six people released from custody each year are freed because the charges keeping them in jail were dropped.

Take the cases of Brown and Jackson, the two men arrested hours apart on drug possession charges.

Brown sat in Cook County Jail for 22 days before a judge ruled on Aug. 2 that the police had lacked probable cause for the arrest. The charges were dismissed.

Two days later, the same thing happened to Jackson. He spent 26 days in custody before the case was thrown out.

Reporting contributed by Injustice Watch staff members, James Asher, Camille Darko, Sam Hart, Emily Hoerner, Adrienne Hurst, and Jeanne Kuang, and Injustice Watch interns, Amani A Abou Harb, Olivia Exstrum, Asif Haq, Anna Hazard, Sumayyah Jones, Maya Manilow, Monica Miller, Leonor Ortiz Monasterio, and Hafsa Razi.

Written by Injustice Watch Staff
Data analysis and graphics by Anna Hazard
Designed and Developed by Sam Hart
Injustice Watch © 2016