Essential Components for Bond Court Reform
A Policy Statement from the Collaboration for Justice of
Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and the Chicago Council of Lawyers
This Policy Statement was published as a Letter to the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on October 29, 2014.
By Ali Abid, Staff Attorney, and Malcolm Rich, Executive Director, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice
On the night of July 24th, before a crowd of 300 at New Landmark Church on Chicago’s West Side, Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced that he would release a plan to reform Bond Court and the Pre-Trial Services Department by the end of October. Chicago Appleseed served as a consultant to the Community Renewal Society and helped facilitate the discussions that led to the announcement.
Cook County’s Central Bond Court has been broken for years. Past efforts at systemic reform have delivered too little. Bond hearings still last roughly just 30 seconds per defendant; judges still impose cash bonds more frequently, and at higher amounts, than other large urban jurisdictions around the country. About 70 percent of Cook County Jail’s pretrial detainees are accused of committing nonviolent crimes.
And despite the urgency with which further change is needed, the prospects of stakeholders working further to accomplish more seemed poor.
Then, in 2013, the Illinois Supreme Court intervened, and created a commission headed by retired Illinois Chief Justice Ben K. Miller and retired U.S. District Court Judge David H. Coar to facilitate a path to reform. In March 2014 the commission issued the Circuit Court of Cook County Pretrial Operational Review, a comprehensive report authored by the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts and the National Center for State Courts. The report identified, in painstaking detail, the shortcomings of the current system, along with 40 specific recommendations for reform. More recently, the commission has taken the stakeholders to Montgomery County, Maryland and Washington D.C. to learn from pretrial systems more in line with best practices.
At an October 21 County Board budget meeting, Chief Judge Evans mentioned a few features that will be in his plan: pushing back the start of the call to allow for more thorough preparation, longer bond hearings, specific recommendations to the court by pretrial services officers on bond amounts and release conditions, and requiring additional on-the-record findings from judges explaining the basis for the bonds they set.
We eagerly await Chief Judge Evans’s full plan. We expect and hope that it has been informed by all of the county’s criminal justice stakeholders, since all the major areas of the Supreme Court’s recommendations require the concerted action of all agencies. For any plan to succeed, coordination and shared buy-in is essential.
Additionally, we believe that a meaningful Bond Court reform plan must include four essential components:
1. Better Training of All Bond Court Personnel
The Pretrial Operational Review report identified a lack of pretrial-specific training and cross-training for Bond Court personnel. This has created an array of problems. For instance, the report found that judges, probation officers, and other Bond Court personnel lacked a general understanding of the Pretrial Services Department’s function and responsibilities. An alarming number of Bond Court personnel members – including judges – were found to possess an inadequate understanding of the alternative types of electronic monitoring options. For Bond Court to operate fairly and effectively, all personnel need to know the intricacies of their jobs, as well as an understanding how they fit into the larger process of the bond call.
2. Modernized Information Sharing Between Stakeholders in Bond Court
The Pretrial Operational Review report noted an absence of coordinated electronic exchange of information between the Sheriff, Pretrial Services, the State’s Attorney, the Public Defender, and the Circuit Clerk. It also reported a difficulty in coordinating and communicating between the Bond Court (which is part of the First Municipal Division) and the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court.
Lack of information sharing and antiquated technology hinder the day-to-day functioning of the pretrial services department. Pretrial officers are unable to conduct meaningful interviews or see background information about any of the detainees until that information physically arrives in the form of an “arrest packet” along with the detainees. The information contained in this paper arrest packet, which is created by the Chicago Police Department, is often the only verified information for pretrial services interviews.
It should be noted that the State’s Attorney’s Office has recently taken the commendable step of sharing defendants’ criminal history reports with the public defenders before the start of the bond call. This new policy, while currently experiencing some logistical difficulties in implementing, is a welcome development.
3. Implementing Accurate, Standardized Data Collection Processes
The Pretrial Operational Review report found substantial problems with data collection among the stakeholders. Even during its own investigation, the review team discovered that the statistical reports they received were cumbersome and inconsistent because of: (1) antiquated technology; (2) the stakeholders’ own unfamiliarity about the scope of data being collected; (3) an absence of a coordinated data-sharing process; and (4) cumbersome, unclear data request protocols. The review team described the troubling experience of receiving reports from different agencies, purportedly recording the same data, that nevertheless reported different numbers.
One proposal may be that stakeholders collectively turn over their data to a neutral third party – perhaps an academic institution – for compilation and dissemination. One such existing collaboration, between the Sheriff’s Department and Loyola University Professor David Olsen, has produced one of the most trusted sources of information on the county’s criminal justice system.
4. Risk Assessments That Use Reliable Tools and Reliable Methods
Pretrial service officers currently use a risk assessment instrument, designed in questionnaire form, to provide judges with information relevant to a defendant’s flight risk and risk to public safety. While use of such tools can be a good practice, the instrument that pretrial service officers use in Bond Court has not been scientifically validated. The current instrument also does not allow for specific recommendations by pretrial officers, which is the opposite of what the Pretrial Operational Review report recommended. And since the information being used to score the instrument is unverified and often incomplete, the instrument’s risk score provides little value. If risk assessment instruments are to continue to be used, the court must require that such tools are validated and incorporate both risk-enhancing and mitigating factors in an empirically meaningful fashion.
The time is right for large-scale improvements to Bond Court. Chief Judge Evans and President Preckwinkle, with the guidance of the Illinois Supreme Court, seem ready to take collaborative action that will make our criminal justice system more fair, efficient, and effective. The people of Cook County deserve no less.