Investigative reporters at the Chicago Tribune have done remarkable work over recent decades, particularly in highlighting the shortcomings of the criminal justice system — issues like wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct — and the need for reform of that massively dysfunctional and racist system.
So it’s disconcerting to see them deploy their considerable skills to attack efforts to reform the bond system — and massaging data and ignoring larger contexts to create a highly skewed impression of what’s at stake.
Their most recent effort hinges on the revelation that two revolving bond funds, the Chicago Community Bond Fund and the local office of The Bail Project, are bailing out individuals who have criminal records, as well as people who’ve been accused of gun crimes, including possessing a gun without a license. And some of those released have been rearrested while awaiting trial.
As revelations go, it’s a little thin. The two groups have made no secret of their mission, which is to assist people who have been charged but not convicted of crimes and are being held in jail solely because they cannot afford bail. As the Tribune reports, they say their work is based on the presumption of innocence, which in fact is guaranteed by the Constitution. The Constitution also bars “excessive bail.” It’s in the BIll of Rights.
Their work is part of a larger movement to end money bail, which discriminates against individuals who lack financial means, particularly people from low-wealth communities of color. The individuals they bail out have been approved for release by judges who assess their risk to the public and their likelihood of showing up for court.
Holding large numbers of people in jail doesn’t increase public safety, argues Sharlyn Grace of CCBF. “If it did the U.S. would be the safest country in the world, since we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.”
She points to research which shows that people held in jail to await trial are actually more likely to end up being eventually rearrested in the future — in large part because they “lose access to jobs, housing, family, any positive support systems they have.” She adds that “people in Cook County Jail are coming back to the community — the question is whether they will come back in a better position or a worse position.”
Pretrial jailings which often stretch for months or years are also known to induce innocent people to take bogus plea deals just to win release — tagging them with criminal records that can haunt them the rest of their lives.
Of course, it’s also known that violent crime rates have gone down in Chicago in the years since Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans ordered bond court judges to set affordable bonds, leading to a significant decrease in the number of people held in the county jail.
But the Tribune reporters make no claim that people bailed out by the bond funds are disproportionately going on to commit violent crimes. They merely say that 20% of a subset of 162 defendants (out of nearly 1,000 bailed out by the two funds) have been rearrested.
Grace said the Tribune’s data set was cobbled together from a series of records requests and “is not a representative sample of the people we’ve bailed out.” According to a response to the article posted by CCBF, “In the last four and a half years, CCBF has paid bond for more than 333 people, 91% of whom were not rearrested while their case was pending.”
The Trib also goosed its numbers by counting rearrests outside the pretrial period. They counted people who were rearrested after the charges for which the funds bailed them out were dismissed, and they included cases where individuals violated parole after they’d been bailed out, tried, and convicted, Grace said. They also included individuals who were rearrested even after the new charges were dismissed, she said.
Instead of offering numbers on violent crimes, the Trib offers vignettes about five individuals released with help from the funds. One has been charged with attempted murder, and another is alleged to have committed what appears to be armed robbery, though it also appears he may not actually have had a weapon. (He “allegedly indicated he had a gun” in the course of a theft.) The others, apparently chosen for the atmospherics of their tales (attempting to steal the jewelry of a recently deceased young woman; having a decades-old sex offense) have been charged with property or drug-related crimes, along with one charge of “possessing ammunition.”
Out of hundreds of cases, selecting the most compelling stories, the reporters came up with just two examples of rearrest involving violent crimes.
These are tragic stories, but they can’t prove what isn’t true, which is that bail reform or the work of bond funds has undermined public safety overall. You could prevent a small number of individual crimes if you ignored constitutional protections and locked up large numbers of people, but the larger impact would certainly overwhelm those numbers.
Tribune reporters played a similar game in an article on bond reform and domestic violence last year. It noted increases in pretrial releases in those cases and interspersed a small number of heart-wrenching tales along with comments by domestic violence advocates who are legitimately concerned about the safety of their clients. But it never claimed actual domestic violence cases had increased.
In fact, WBEZ later reported that the number of people accused of domestic violence who were rearrested on new charges while out on bail had actually declined slightly following Evans’ order led to increased pretrial releases.
The new article also makes a point that the two funds have bailed out three people charged with murder and ten accused of attempted murder, along with 54 charged with possessing a gun without a license, including some facing higher charges due to previous convictions. (I’ve argued in the past that locking up people for victimless gun possession is not a particularly effective way to address gun violence.)
“The charges don’t tell the whole story,” Grace said. The funds have bailed out a number of “domestic violence survivors being prosecuted for defending themselves,” she said. “That often involves a murder charge and generally involves acts of violence. It especially involves women of color who have limited access to resources.
“That doesn’t mean that person is required to be jailed because they present a threat to society,” she said. “That’s exactly what judges are supposed to be considering when they make a bond decision.”
But the Tribune reporters explicitly question whether “charities” should post bond for “people charged with violent crimes.” They cite the work of Jesse Jackson and Willie Wilson, who also bail out detainees, but not when they’re charged with violent crimes. And they add a nonsensical comment from the highly controversial ethicist Peter Singer, who apparently would prefer the charities bail out people who’ve been “charged with riding a bicycle on a sidewalk.” (Such offenses, of course, are punished with tickets.)
But the Bail Project and the Chicago Community Bond Fund have a larger goal, which is ending the inequities associated with the cash bail system. The Bail Project’s website has a long, thoughtful discussion of how a reformed system could work, and the Coalition to End Money Board, of which CCBF is a part, has a vision for how Illinois could proceed.
It would require a large shift of resources — just as ending gun violence will require a Marshall Plan-scale investment to create educational and economic opportunities for communities long starved by disinvestment. Every dollar spent unnecessarily on locking people up is a dollar that’s diverted from real solutions.
That’s the truth that the Tribune is now working so hard to obscure.