No need for Tom Dart to be gun-shy on bail reform

File photo by Yingxu Jane Hao

Cook County is making strides in reducing its jail population by reducing the number of people detained solely because they can’t afford bond.  Now Sheriff Tom Dart, who has been a proponent of bail reform, thinks the pendulum may have swung too far.

Dart issued a letter Feb. 22 saying the increase in electronic monitoring assignments for individuals charged with gun crimes raises public safety concerns. The letter also announced that his office would begin an additional review of judicial orders of release, referring them back to court if individuals are deemed a security risk.

Dart wrote that since an order by Chief Judge Timothy Evans (requiring that bonds be set at amounts that defendants can afford) went into effect in September, the number of individuals facing gun charges and assigned to electronic monitoring has risen from 2 percent to 22 percent. “This population calls for additional community supervision to ensure safety,” Dart wrote.

Besides safety, Dart has three agenda items at play here. One, clear from his letter, is to complain about staffing cuts and request additional resources.  The second, inferred by observers, is political cover: If one person among the thousands being released commits a headline-generating crime, Dart can say “I told you so.”

Third, Dart is also backing legislation in Springfield that would give judges greater authority to detain gun offenders until trial – about which more later.

Evans’ office pushed back on the staffing question, asking whether nearly $50 million saved by cutting the jail population could be used to support electronic monitoring.

Evans and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also pushed back on Dart’s premises.  Evans’ office noted that “the population we are talking about [consists of] pretrial defendants who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”  Preckwinkle noted that gun possession is not an inherently “violent” offense: “Many possession cases do not involve a victim.”

Preckwinkle added that only five of 195 individuals facing gun charges who were released since Evans’ order went into effect have been rearrested on gun charges. The numbers provide no evidence of an increased public safety threat from the new policy, she said.  Preckwinkle gently reminded Dart of “our responsibility to keep these stories in perspective and not contribute to sensationalizing them.”

Pushback, less gentle, also came from Cook County Public Defender Amy P. Campanelli. “This is outrageous,” she wrote Dart, accusing him of “usurping the power of the judiciary.” “Sheriff Dart is violating the constitutional right of all these clients to have bail set and court orders followed according to law,” she wrote.

On Feb. 26, a class action lawsuit challenged Dart’s new policy, arguing that he was violating the rights of people who had already been released by detaining them for an additional review period. One named plaintiff is a woman who was held even though her $5,000 bond was posted by the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

There’s a lot to unpack here.  A new study of the impact of Evans’s bond reform order by the Coalition to End Money Bond found that in the three months after the order was implemented, the jail population declined by more than 1,400 to about 6,100 – but since then, the decrease has stalled.

The coalition found that orders requiring money bonds decreased by nearly 50 percent.  But it also found that nearly half of all money bonds were set higher than defendants said they could afford.  And there was wide disparity among Bond Court judges: Two-thirds of cash bonds set by Judge Michael Clancy were unaffordable, far more than in cases handled by other judges, according to the coalition. In the vast majority of cases, judges disregarded recommendations set by pretrial services using risk evaluation screening.

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

The group estimates that 3,000 people remain in Cook County Jail because they can’t afford to make bond.  Noting that judges can’t be relied on to carry out the new system, the coalition concludes that completely ending the use of money bonds is “the only way to truly eliminate the racially discriminatory injustice of wealth-based pretrial incarceration.”

Another issue is Dart’s treatment of electronic monitoring as some kind of “soft” option to pretrial detention.  James Kilgore, a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (who himself spent a year on electronic monitoring), argues that electronic monitoring is “not an alternative to incarceration – it’s an alternative form of incarceration. It deprives people of their liberty the same as jail does.”  And he says individuals incur the same costs – loss of jobs, housing and family.

In addition, Cook County’s electronic monitoring program (one of the largest in the nation) appears to be very poorly managed, according to recent report by the bond fund.  Numerous individuals released after their bond was paid by the fund were cited for violating pretrial conditions that they say they were never informed about.  One man was arrested and lost his job because he was staying with his grandparents, while an order he hadn’t been told of gave him a 24-hour curfew at his parents’ house.  Another man had his bond revoked because he violated a curfew that he didn’t know about by going to school in the middle of the day. And a woman was re-jailed after she violated her curfew because she had to go to the emergency room.

People on electronic monitoring have to get permission for every outside movement, but the phone line they have to call for permission or regular check-ins is often not answered, according to the bond fund.  Sometimes, permission is arbitrarily denied.  One single mother was denied permission to attend her child’s graduation.  The fund also reports that electronic monitoring has forced clients to drop out of school and caused them to become homeless.

Kilgore maintains that electronic monitoring is inappropriate for people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. If a court determines someone is eligible for release, he or she “should be able to go about their business,” he said.

Perhaps those millions of dollars saved by reducing the jail population could be spent on something other than electronic monitoring ­– like programs that would actually make communities safer.

Finally, there’s the issue of gun offenses.  With legitimate public concern about gun violence, it’s easy for politicians to scapegoat people charged with gun possession.  But merely possessing an unlicensed gun is not a violent crime.  In neighborhoods with high levels of violence, some people feel they need to carry a gun for self-defense, whether or not they qualify for a permit.

INVESTIGATION:Without a smoking gun

It was a Chicago Reporter article by former reporter Angela Caputo years ago that first made me realize that “gun possession” can mean lots of different things.  Caputo wrote about a 17-year-old kid who was playing video games with his friends when police busted into the apartment and found a .38 special under a bed. It belonged to the older brother of the friend the youth was visiting. Three younger friends were charged as juveniles, but the 17-year-old was charged as an adult.  Scared of being in jail, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.

According to Caputo, in one-quarter of cases in which teens were charged with gun possession, they were never clearly identified as actually having a gun.

There’s a fallacy behind the legislation Dart is backing, a fallacy that is also found in a recent Chicago Tribune editorial. The fallacy is that judges have no option but to release dangerous people charged with gun crimes. In fact, said Sharlyn Grace of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, judges in Illinois have very broad authority to hold people they deem to be public safety risks.  She noted that Dart’s own figures showed that 10 percent of people with “unlawful use of weapons” charges (generally, gun possession) were held with no bond.

As a society, we face a paradigm shift.  Locking up large numbers of people has clearly not worked as a strategy to increase public safety.  We need to shift resources from incarceration to education and community development.  We have programs that we know work, but we never scale them up.

For elected officials, it’s a scary change.  It requires leadership and courage.  Tom Dart is known as a reformer.  We need him to keep his eyes on the prize.

This post has been updated since publishing.