CHICAGO STUDY: Bail Reforms Alleviate Financial Burden on Poor and Minority Defendants without Increasing Overall Crime

By Linhchi Nguyen

CHICAGO – Cook County’s bail reform – known as GO18.8A – created a presumption of release without monetary bail for the large majority of felony defendants in Cook County and encouraged the use of lower bail amounts for those required to post monetary bail, according to a study by Don Stemen and David Olson.

In the report, “Dollars and Sense in Cook County,” Stemen and Olson found the reform increased the number of defendants who are released without having to post monetary bail, decreased the financial burden on defendants and their families, and increased the percent and number of people released pretrial – all without affecting new criminal activity of those released or increasing crime.

In recent years, proponents of bail reform have targeted the overuse of monetary bail, which creates a disparate impact of pretrial detention on poor and minority defendants. They advocate for reducing or eliminating the use of monetary bail, arguing that many defendants are held in jail pretrial solely because they cannot afford to post bail.

On the other hand, opponents of bail reform are concerned that reducing the use of monetary bail or increasing the number of people released pretrial could result in more defendants failing to appear for court hearings (FTAs) or committing crimes while on pretrial release.

However, evaluations of recent bail reforms indicate that these efforts have not been associated with increases in new criminal activity.

This was the case for GO18.8A, which was issued by the Chief Judge of Cook County’s Circuit Court on September 17, 2017 to reform bail practices. Under the order, bond court judges were to first determine whether a defendant should be released pretrial and, if not, hold the defendant in jail.

If the defendant could be released, GO18.8A created a presumption of release without monetary bail; however, if monetary bail was necessary, the order stated that bail should be set at an amount affordable for the defendant.

A debate on GO18.8A was sparked by the media, concerning the types of individuals released pretrial and the number of individuals charged with a new crime while on pretrial release.

The debate centered around an evaluation conducted by the Office of Chief Judge (OCJ), which found that the number and percent of felony defendants released pretrial increased after GO18.8A, but that the percent of felony defendants charged with a new crime while on pretrial release was similar before and after GO18.8A.

Other analyses by the media and academics suggested that GO18.8A may have led to an increase in new criminal activity of those released pretrial and contributed directly to increases in crime in Chicago and Cook County.

All of these examinations, however, appear to suffer from methodological shortcomings. So Stemen and Olson provided a rigorous, objective external assessment of the impact of GO18.8A in order to correct these problems and resolve the contradictions.

According to their studies, there was a significant increase in the use of I-Bonds (where defendants are released without having to post monetary bail), from 26 percent of defendants before GO18.8A to 57 percent after GO18.8A.

The impact of this shift was dramatic, allowing 3,559 additional people to receive an I-Bond in the six months after GO18.8A. Because none of these defendants had to post monetary bail to be released pretrial, they and their families saved $13.6 million in bond costs.

Stemen and Olson further revealed that GO18.8A led to a dramatic decrease in bond amounts imposed for defendants receiving D-Bonds (when defendants pay 10 percent of the bail amount in order to secure release from jail). Average bond amounts decreased from $9,316 to $3,824, allowing 3,256 defendants to save $17.8 million in bond costs after GO18.8A.

Altogether, GO18.8A allowed defendants and their families to have $31.4 million available to be used for rent, food, and medical care while their case was being resolved.

In terms of the number and percent of people released pretrial, GO18.8A did not create a dramatic change: the percent of defendants released pretrial increased from 77 percent to 81 percent.

This is because the Cook County’s bond court reforms now provide judges a risk assessment tool in making decisions such that the higher the risk level, the less likely the defendant was to receive an I-Bond or to be released pretrial.

GO18.8A also had no impact on new criminal activity or new violent activity of those defendants released pretrial. Overall, the probability of new criminal activity remained at roughly 17 percent before and after GO18.8A, and the probability of new violent criminal activity remained constant at just three percent.

GO18.8A appears to demonstrate that it is possible to decrease the use of monetary bail and decrease pretrial detention – and lessen the financial, physical, and psychological harms that come with pretrial detention – without affecting criminal activity or crime rates.

Similar outcomes of bail reforms are reflected in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

Despite what opponents argue, releasing people on their own recognizance does not make communities less safe, note proponents, who added that taking money away from people to secure their release does not make communities safer – but it does impose a significant burden on those individuals and their families who are least able to afford it.

Linhchi Nguyen is a fourth year at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and English. She currently lives in Sacramento, California.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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