When Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald in November, his bail was set at $1.5 million. Later that day, Van Dyke’s family posted the $150,000 necessary for him to wait out his case from home.
More than a year earlier, in the wake of another fatal police shooting, 18-year-old Davontae Ruth was charged with aggravated assault of a police officer. His bail was set at just $25,000. But Ruth, who grew up on Chicago's Southeast Side and whose parents work out of state, didn’t know anyone who could raise the $2,500 needed to bail him out. So he was sent to Cook County Jail to await his trial.
Ruth wasn't alone. He was among five people charged with aggravated assault and mob action following a candlelight vigil in Avalon Park for 17-year-old Desean Pittman, who was shot by police in August 2014. Ruth was accused of throwing bricks at police officers when they broke up the vigil.
Advocates for criminal justice reform say the difference between the two cases exemplifies the problem with monetary bond. People with means can buy their freedom; those without access to money sit in jail – sometimes for months or even years – while their case works its way through the system.
According to data from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, more than 61,000 people went in and out of jail between April 2014 and 2015, about 35,000 on monetary bonds. Fewer than half of the inmates who were held on monetary bond were able to post bail within a week.
“We want to see an end to cash bail,” said Sharlyn Grace, a lawyer and one of the organizers of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a new non-profit organization that will post bond for Chicagoans who can’t afford it. “In the meantime, we think it’s important to help individuals who are being harmed by the system.”
The idea behind bond seems simple enough: If you lose money for missing a court date or committing a crime, you're more likely to stay out of trouble and return to court.
But that’s not the case, research shows. A 2013 study of 2,000 criminal cases in Colorado found that defendants released on personal recognizance are just as likely to return to court and just as likely to reoffend as those with monetary bonds. In Washington, D.C., where nearly 90 percent of defendants are released without monetary bond, 88 percent make all of their court appearances and 89 percent do not have any new arrests during the pretrial phase.
In fact, someone who is at low-risk to reoffend and who sits in jail pretrial for just two to three days is 17 percent more likely to reoffend than someone released within 24 hours and 22 percent more likely to fail to appear for court, according to research. The likelihood of recidivism and failure to appear increase the longer someone is detained pretrial. Defendants who are held pretrial are also much more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison for their crimes, and for longer periods of time.
“The machine produces the opposite outcomes that we want from a system that is supposed to be providing justice and public safety,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, which advocates for alternatives to monetary bond.
Criteria for bond
The decision for bond in Cook County is supposed to be based on a defendant’s prior record and the results of a risk-assessment tool, which measures the likelihood that the person will reoffend and appear for future court hearings.
In reality, judge’s decisions about bond vary widely. Many judges in Cook County don’t trust the risk-assessment tool, so they don’t use it, according to a 2014 review of the Cook County Court system by the Illinois Supreme Court.
That review, which included dozens of specific recommendations for pretrial reform, led to some changes, including implementation of a new risk-assessment tool and new training for pretrial services staff and bond court judges. The specifics of the tool are proprietary, but it takes into account factors such as a defendant's criminal history, age and current charge.
The changes were supposed to improve the information gathered about defendants before bond court so judges could make better decisions about pretrial detention. Reform advocates hoped this would lead to more people being released pretrial without having to pay money up front, known in Illinois as I-bonds.
A review of Cook County felony bond court by the Reclaim Campaign in July and August found some improvements. Defendants were released on I-bonds in approximately 60 percent of cases, up from an estimated 20 percent in 2011. (The Reclaim Campaign is a project of Community Renewal Society, the parent organization of The Chicago Reporter.)
However, there were still large discrepancies between different judges in the kind and amount of bond set. For example, Judge Donald Panarese Jr. was twice as likely as some of his colleagues to release defendants on I-bonds, which often include conditions such as electronic monitoring. But when he did set monetary bond, the amount was nearly twice as high, on average, as bonds set by other judges.
A spokesman for the Cook County Court said in a statement that consistency between judges "is not necessarily something the court would view as a measure of success" because each case is unique and the court sees itself as a neutral party in all cases.
Organizing the bond fund
The efforts of the Chicago Community Bond Fund won’t change these inconsistencies, but it will help people like Ruth, who spent two months in Cook County Jail before Max Suchan bailed him out in October 2014.
Suchan was a law student at the time and had returned from Ferguson, Mo., where he volunteered with the National Lawyers Guild as a legal observer at protests after the death of Michael Brown, just a few weeks before Ruth was arrested.
When he read that five people, including the teen's mother, had been arrested at the vigil for Pittman and later charged, he began working with other young activists to contact family members and raise money to bond them out. Through house parties and barbecues, they eventually raised more than $30,000 to post bond for Ruth and the others.
The process got Suchan and others thinking about the thousands of low-income Chicagoans who are in jail because they can’t afford to pay and why there wasn’t a system in place to help those individuals. They began meeting in December 2014. The bond fund has raised almost $100,000 so far.
Last month, they bonded out two more women, including Naomi Freeman, a pregnant mother of two facing murder charges for allegedly killing her abuser.
Among the first challenges organizers of the bond fund have faced are deciding who to bail out and ensuring that they don’t only help those who are connected to the group.
“For me, the biggest struggle is going to be access,” Suchan said. “I don’t want it to just be people that we know.”
But high-profile cases can be useful for garnering support for the fund’s broader efforts. After BYP100 activist Malcolm London was arrested at a protest for Laquan McDonald the bond fund raised $45,000 in 18 hours, according to its website. The next day, London was released and the charges dropped. The organizers said they will use that money to bond out other individuals.
In the past month, the bond fund has been referred about 15 cases, some through emails from family members of people in jail and others by social service or legal aid organizations. The group has a list of 11 criteria they will use to evaluate whether to assist someone with bond, including the amount of bond to be paid, the risk of the individual being victimized in jail and the person’s existing support system.
Davontae Ruth could be a poster boy for the group’s efforts. Without the help of Suchan and the other activists, Ruth, now 20, would still be in jail, 16 months after he was arrested. His case is set to go to trial in early March.
Instead, since he was bailed out of jail, Ruth has been able to re-enroll at Winnie Mandela High School, where he expects to graduate in June. He hopes to go to college to study forensic science, and one day to join law enforcement as a crime scene investigator.
“We will never be in a position to help everybody,” Suchan said. “We want to help some people, and through the humanizing of those people, we hope that that will add momentum to our advocacy efforts for bond reform.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the factors included in a risk assessment tool used for determining bond. The assessment tool does not consider substance abuse, mental health, education, employment or community ties.