State legislators consider cash bond reforms
Legislators in Springfield are studying the impact of a bail reform law that aimed to cut the number of non-violent offenders held in jail, largely by eliminating cash bonds for many.
While some argued before a House judiciary committee that the law should be more robust, court administrators, particularly in smaller counties, worry about the cost of the reform, including the loss of fees and the requirement that defendants must be provided with a lawyer at bond hearings.
House Bill 221 would allow counties with populations of under 3 million to opt out of requirements contained in the 2017 Bail Reform Act. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the act earlier this month.
Tamara Holder, a high-profile Chicago-based defense attorney, is a strong advocate for bail reform and bluntly states it is "stupid" to hold many non-violent defendants in jail for weeks, possibly months, sometimes even years.
"It is a big deal, the idea that we have non-violent people [in jail] is stupid," Holder told Chicago City Wire. "Of course, there are people who are violent and must be taken off the street, but otherwise it does not make sense. I think that the country is moving toward questioning the way that we lock people up, even asking what is criminal."
She cites, for example, the drive towards legalization of marijuana, and the fact that so many people were locked up in the past for possession of even small amounts of the product. The attorney also argues that the wholesale holding of non-violent offenders because they cannot come up with even a small amount of cash does not make sense from a financial point of view.
"You are paying to house them, the guards to transport to and from jail, the expense of prosecuting," Holder said. "To house a single person is probably equal to one year's salary for that person, on a minimum-wage job. Instead it is the taxpayers paying."
The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a state agency that tracks the administration of criminal justice in the state, reports that 90 percent of those in the state's jails are in pretrial detention status. This affect more than 267,421 detainees a year, according to its figures. It costs $143 a day to hold one person in Cook County Jail, the authority reports.
Holder did note one another issue that could slow moves to eliminate cash bonds for many alleged offenders, the fact that lawyers are often guaranteed at least some payment after a case is wrapped up. When a case ends, the clerk takes 10 percent of, for example, $1,000 cash, while a lawyer knows he or she has access to at least some of the rest at the conclusion of a case, Holder said, while adding that the real focus is on those individuals that cannot afford any payment.
Under the bail act, they must be represented by public defenders already burdened by "absolutely insane" work loads, Holder said.
Sharyln Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a support group that helps pay cash to release alleged offenders pre-trial, believes counties fear the expense of providing public defenders.
"They're focused on the cost to counties rather than the impact on the individuals and communities that suffer from money bond and pre-trial incarceration,” Grace told Public News Service, a national news provider, ahead of the judiciary committee hearing.