from the Mayor-Lightfoot:-do-not-pass-GO dept
Well, this is ugly. Lots of states and cities have considered bail reform in recent years, given the system’s propensity for punishing the poorest people while allowing the more fortunate to buy their way out of jail.
The criminal justice system is built on the presumption of innocence — something that’s often ignored by law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and juries. Ostensibly a tool used to help ensure accused criminals show up for their court dates, it has become a contributor to a two-tiered justice system that keeps presumably innocent (but less advantaged) people behind bars just because they don’t have the funds to get released.
Like any law enforcement reform effort, it has tons of law enforcement critics. It also has plenty of critics in the legislative ranks. According to critics, eliminating cash bail in all but the most severe cases allows known criminals to commit more crimes or evade justice by walking away from their criminal trials. These claims ignore the foundation of the justice system: that accused criminals are innocent until proven guilty.
It’s one thing when a police official says something this stupid. It’s quite another when it’s the leader of one of the largest cities in the United States. Here’s Dave Byrnes with the details for Courthouse News Service:
“We shouldn’t be locking up nonviolent individuals just because they can’t afford to pay bail,” [Chicago Mayor Lori] Lightfoot said during a Monday afternoon press conference on public safety in Chicago. “But, given the exacting standards that the state’s attorney has for charging a case, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, when those charges are brought – these people are guilty.”
Mayor Lightfoot is wrong — not just in her belief that the presumption of innocence does not exist, but about the legal standard needed to bring criminal charges. The “exacting standard” she cites is what’s needed to secure a criminal conviction in a jury trial. To bring criminal charges, all a prosecutor needs is (completely unchallenged) assertions saying there is probable cause a crime was committed. That’s a much lower bar. From there, prosecutors move towards “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And while they go through that (slow, often-delayed) process, people who can’t afford bail stay locked up.
So, there’s a big disconnect between criminal charges and “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidence that a crime was committed by an arrested suspect. This means truly innocent people are locked up all the time, denied release because they can’t pay bail. And that’s according to prosecutors’ own statistics.
The Cook County State’s Attorney Office’s own numbers do not reflect this assertion. In an email sent to Courthouse News on Tuesday afternoon, it said it approved charges in about 86% of the cases it reviewed, with a 74% conviction rate.
Using these numbers alone, one out of four people locked up in pretrial detention are innocent… or at least lacking enough evidence against them to allow prosecution to continue.
Mayor Lightfoot backpedaled a bit on her first assertion, admitting the presumption of innocence was still part of the justice system, but reiterated that people charged with violent crimes were perhaps less entitled to this presumption.
The mayor said that those charged with violent crimes by the CCSAO should not be released on bail prior to their trials. She urged Chicagoans to “keep pressing the criminal courts to lock up violent, dangerous people and not put them out on bail or electronic monitoring.”
Fortunately for Chicagoans, not only is the law on their side, but so is the local judiciary. Cook County Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans fired back at the mayor with a statement [PDF] of his own, pointing out the errors of her assertions.
A recent claim that all those accused of violent crimes are “guilty” and should be in jail prior to trial is wrong on both the law and the facts, Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans said on Tuesday.
“As I have previously stated, I respectfully disagree that the automatic detention in jail of defendants facing certain categories of charges is a constitutional practice under the United States and Illinois constitutions. Pretrial detention serves a legitimate purpose, preventing the serious risk of committing crimes while on pretrial release. Its purpose is not, however, to punish by depriving people of their liberty for crimes for which they have not yet been convicted.”
The judge goes on to point out that an actual justice system involves weighing several factors before determining what is the least restrictive way to ensure the public’s safety and the return of defendants to court. Cash bail is not always the solution and should be used carefully.
And, as his statement notes, accused violent criminals still have the same rights. According to the stats cited in his letter, over 14% of accused violent criminals are either found not guilty at trial or have their cases dropped following further investigation by the prosecutor’s office. As for the argument that eliminating cash bail somehow makes Chicago less safe, the judge cites two studies from local universities — one that showed that only 1% of suspects released on bond were rearrested for violent offences and that of the city’s 4,447 homicides and shooting incidents in 2021, only three were linked to released violent suspects.
The mayor is wrong on the law, the stats, and the Constitution. Fortunately, she’s been called out by the head of the local judiciary. Unfortunately, the judge’s solid response will go ignored by those who actually believe accused criminals are guilty criminals. And those people are, far too often, the ones who hold the power to disrupt and destroy lives by acting on this mistaken assumption.