Lacking sufficient funds to bail oneself from jail after arrest has long mandated a lengthy stint behind bars while awaiting trial; but this modern iteration of a Dickensian debtor’s prison system may finally have met its match in a judge from Chicago, who — perhaps fed up — ruled this week that income should not bear sole weight in determining bail.
Considering court dates are not infrequently months or years in the future, countless lower-income Chicagoans — particularly, those charged with nonviolent drug and other offenses — won’t be unjustly forced to languish behind bars, worsening their financial situation, due to unreasonable bail.
“Defendants should not be sitting in jail awaiting trial simply because they lack the financial resources to secure their release,” Timothy Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, said in a statement cited by Reuters.
“If they are not deemed a danger to any person or the public, my order states that they will receive a bail they can afford.”
Although bail may still be set to ensure a defendant’s appearance on the appropriate court date, judges are now required to establish whether the “defendant has the present ability to pay the amount necessary.”
Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia implored the Illinois State Supreme Court to adopt similar measures, asserting in a statement,
“It is an extraordinary and significant step toward the critical and constitutionally mandated goal of ending the longstanding practice of jailing presumptively innocent persons prior to trial because they are too poor to post cash bail.”
For a dwindling few, posting bail doesn’t quicken the heart rate or shock the senses with dread — but, for too many, paying the State’s ransom for freedom prior to trial is not just an impossibility, it could mean lost employment, finding funds for childcare during the pretrial incarceration period, ruined relationships, and necessities like heat and water being shut off.
“Studies indicate that those incarcerated before a trial or a plea bargain or before charges are dismissed are at greater risk of losing their jobs, their homes or even custody of children. They are also more likely to commit other crimes once released,” the New York Times explains.
“Even a few days of pretrial confinement can seriously destabilize a person’s life, potentially leading to later problems. Not only does this cost society more in the long run, but it also means that taxpayers foot the bill for nonviolent defendants who are locked up at $100 a day or more, even though they pose little threat.”
Ordinarily, only 10 percent of the total bond is required to post bail; but with total bonds frequently set at $50,000 or $100,000, even that fraction can be laughably unmanageable — thus, pretrial incarceration constitutes punishment for assumed guilt, whether or not subsequent court proceedings result in conviction, dismissal, or otherwise.
Reports the New York Times,
“Cara Smith, the chief policy officer for the Cook County sheriff, Tom Dart, who supports bail-reform efforts, called the order a ‘positive step.’ The Cook County state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, who has also supported bail reform, said the order was ‘important guidance for the judiciary and the entire criminal justice system on the need to reduce our reliance on monetary bond.’ Nationally, some prosecutors oppose reform efforts, arguing that the changes could hurt their ability to protect the public.
“But Washington and some other areas already have more progressive bail-setting systems, and now the Cook County order could prove momentous, reform advocates say.”
Indeed, though arguably most efficacious to gut the entire pretrial system, this monetary leveling of the playing field has the potential to afford a semblance of fairness where a dearth nationwide currently deprives untold numbers of the same.
Evincing the scope of the problem, last year, a telling report from the Chicago Tribune noted at least 300 inmates of the (Chicago-inclusive) Cook County Jail could not amass the mere $100 required for bail freedom — meaning they were de facto financial prisoners of the government.
And that — for government and legal watchdogs, advocates, and activists — has been a terrifying revisitation to the days where one’s financial situ could and did translate into punitive time in prison.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Times points out, once observed, a poor defendant “does not stay in jail because he is any more likely to flee before trial.
“He stays in jail for one reason only — he stays in jail because he is poor.”
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Contributed by Claire Bernish of The Daily Sheeple.