Bond court reforms may lead to more punitive pretrial conditions: report

File photo by Stacey Rupolo

Bond reform activists scored a major victory this summer when Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans announced an order aimed at curbing monetary bonds that disproportionately hurt low-income defendants. Judges are now required to set affordable bond for defendants who are not a risk to public safety. They must also impose the “least restrictive conditions” needed to ensure a defendant appears in court, and to maintain public safety.

But those reforms could have unintended consequences, a major reform group says, by increasing the use of restrictive pretrial conditions that they say can be as onerous as jail. The reforms went into effect in Central Bond Court last month.

Pretrial conditions such as electronic monitoring and curfews, “restrict the liberty of innocent people and even mimic the same harms as pretrial incarceration, causing loss of jobs, housing, access to medical care, and putting severe strain on social support networks and family members,” the Chicago Community Bond Fund asserts in a new report released Tuesday. The bond fund posts bail for people who can’t afford it and advocates abolishing monetary bond altogether, an idea that is gaining traction nationally.

The report relies primarily on anecdotes from people served by the bond fund, to make the case that restrictive and often arbitrary pretrial conditions can disrupt employment, separate people from their families, and set them up for violations that land them back in jail.

The bond fund was a driving force behind a lawsuit filed last October that challenged Cook County’s use of cash bond, and a public hearing by county commissioners on the issue the following month. The public pressure ultimately led to Evans’ order.

Even before the order went into effect, however, bond fund activists found evidence that more defendants were being assigned to pretrial supervision, curfews, and electronic monitoring. One-quarter of the 98 people the fund bailed out since late 2015 were given such conditions, according to the report.

These conditions are often imposed by judges despite less-restrictive recommendations for defendants considered at low risk of committing new crimes, and can be more restrictive than the probation conditions handed down at sentencing, according to Max Suchan, a co-founder of the bond fund.

“All these pretrial requirements, supervision and monitoring basically amount to pretrial punishment before anyone has been convicted of a crime,” Suchan said. “We think they are inappropriate and unjust in the vast majority of situations in which they are applied.”

Take, for example, Tyrell, an 18-year-old charged in May with selling $20 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer. (Tyrell is a pseudonym used at his request to protect his identity.) It was his first adult felony arrest, and he scored low on the public safety assessment, the standardized tool used to determine the risk that a defendant will fail to appear in court or will commit a crime while released.

According to the assessment, Tyrell should have been released with no conditions. Instead, Judge Laura Sullivan gave him a $10,000 deposit bond; he would need to come up with $1,000 to get out of jail. Sullivan added other conditions: If Tyrell raised the money, he would have a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew every day, would have to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, and would have to report in person, once a month, to pretrial services. These conditions are among the most restrictive a judge can place on someone before trial.

Tyrell was held for three weeks in Cook County Jail before the bond fund bailed him out. He missed the end of his junior year of high school and will have to take night classes to make up the lost time. Because of the curfew, he couldn’t get the summer jobs he applied for at McDonald’s or Checkers; the only shifts available were in the evening. The charges against him were dropped in August after he completed a four-session drug school.

“I didn’t like [the curfew] because I was in the house, cooped up, and I couldn’t go work and progress myself,” Tyrell said.

The judge never explained why he had a curfew or worked to help him understand the process, Tyrell said. In fact, before an interview with the Chicago Reporter, Tyrell thought the bond fund, not the judge, set the curfew.

Confusion about the pretrial process is extremely common, Suchan said, and even lawyers often have trouble getting through to pretrial service officers.

“Sometimes the pretrial services requirements aren’t evident on their bond slip, and they’re not made clear in court,” he said. “The lack of communication greatly exacerbates the problem.”

Judge expects increase in pretrial services’ cases

The Reporter requested data four months ago from the Office of the Chief Judge on pretrial bond conditions, in order to investigate the bond fund’s observations. The court system is not subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The office provided five years of pretrial services data, including data on defendants’ risk assessment scores and recommendations for supervision. However, the data did not include the pretrial conditions actually imposed by judges, an omission the office has yet to explain. Pretrial supervision can range from a simple phone reminder of court dates to biweekly face-to-face check-ins to 24-hour curfews.

An early draft of a staffing analysis report prepared by the research and evaluation unit of the chief judge’s office this summer and recently obtained by the Reporter shows that there has been a 50 percent increase in the average number of people on pretrial supervision every day, from 2,448 in December 2013 to 3,678 in 2016. Those statistics were removed from a later version provided to the Reporter by the chief judge’s office.

The staffing analysis bolsters the idea that pretrial supervision will increase under the new bond court order. The report estimates that the number of defendants ordered to pretrial supervision will increase another 55 percent under the new order.

Attorneys with the Cook County Public Defenders’ office say they have already seen a marked increase in one area: electronic monitoring.

“Has the number of clients placed on electronic monitoring increased since the new general order in September? Absolutely, yes,” said Danita Ivory, a felony court supervisor who oversees bond court for the public defender. But she cautioned that it’s too early to see if that trend holds.

A spokesman for the chief judge did not comment on the bond fund report. But he emphasized that it has only been one month since the bond court order went into effect and that the chief judge has pledged to monitor and analyze the effects of the new order over the first year of implementation.

Chief Judge Evans is set to appear before the Cook County Board’s finance committee on Friday to request a 20 percent increase in the pretrial services staff, from 75 full-time positions last year to 90, at a cost of $6.9 million. (That was before a request from the committee chairman for every department to reduce its 2018 budget request by 10 percent in response to the pop tax repeal.)

The bond fund released its report this week in part to discourage the board from giving the pretrial services division more resources carte blanche, without also urging the department to provide more support services.

The earlier draft of the staffing analysis report acknowledges the lack of supportive services, but suggests that more pretrial services officers are needed to change that.

“Most pretrial services officers strive to work with defendants and refer them to community services,” the draft report stated. “However, because they maintain high caseload which are mixed caseloads of low and higher risk defendants, linkage to treatment, housing and employment services is unsystematic.”

The bond fund report recommends focusing on helping defendants get to court, by providing bus passes or child care and scheduling court dates around people’s work schedules. Electronic monitoring and curfews should only be used as a last resort.

“We’re looking for a shift,” Suchan said, “away from a punitive, punishment-based model to one that’s actually supportive, that helps people get to court, that helps them to succeed and to get through the process.”