U.S. News

Poor, nonviolent inmates benefit from U.S. bail reform push

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Accused of stealing a $240 surveillance camera, Edward has been sitting in Chicago’s Cook County Jail for four months awaiting trial.

The 45-year-old handyman from Gary, Indiana, who has a history of retail and auto theft and drug possession, cannot pay a $3,000 bail bond. But circumstances for Edward and many others like him are about to change.

Edward is one of hundreds of nonviolent, low-income defendants in Chicago’s Cook County jail who could be released without bail from the biggest lock-up in the country when new rules take effect in coming weeks. Edward spoke with Reuters, but did not want his last name published.

Under SB 202, passed easily by Illinois lawmakers in May, inmates accused of nonviolent crimes such as trespassing and retail theft will be released without bond, pending trial, if their case has not been resolved within 30 days.

The Illinois bill is the latest sign of a national shift in the criminal justice system, away from harsh sentences and three-strike laws, and toward reducing spending on jails swollen with the homeless, mentally ill and people with substance abuse problems.

“These folks are nonviolent, not dangerous. They are in here because of inertia built into a large system,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who proposed the new Illinois bill to legislators. Taxpayers pay $143 a day per inmate in the jail, which currently houses some 8,800 accused and convicted people.

Supported by victims’ advocacy groups and prosecutors, which in the past were more likely to back tough-on-crime measures, the bill is expected to be signed into law soon by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.


Increasingly, both liberals and conservatives are backing justice reform due to the expense of mass incarceration and the mixed results of policies pushed in the 1990s to limit parole, establish mandatory minimum sentences, impose long sentences for repeat felony offenders and increase drug sanctions.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier in July launched a similar program that will release without bond some 3,400 of the city’s annual 45,000 detainees under monitored supervision until their cases are resolved.

President Barack Obama also focused on justice reform this week, saying the country needed to reduce overly harsh prison terms for nonviolent crimes that have been disproportionately applied to minorities.

The rate of people in jail in the United States on any given day was 231 per 100,000 in 2013, up from 96 per 100,000 three decades earlier as drug sentences became more severe, according to federal data.

“People are realizing there’s a better way of doing this,” said Nancy Fishman, project director at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York and co-author of a new report that argues jails are being misused.

Fishman pointed to Washington, D.C., where most people are released on their own recognizance and the city has an 89 percent court appearance rate. She added cities are using increasingly sophisticated ways to assess the risk that an accused person will not show up in court or will commit a crime while on release.

In Edward’s case, his bail was set relatively high because the alleged camera theft was classified as a Class IV felony due to his multiple past convictions and prison time.

“There’s no violence in my record,” Edward said. “I’m not a bad person. I’m struggling with a drug problem.”

The father of two 20-year-olds, Edward was living with his mother and said he made about $3,000 a month doing painting, carpeting and other remodeling work when he was arrested. He said treatment has helped him in the past, but he started abusing cocaine and alcohol again.

Edward faces a maximum 3-year prison sentence, but many inmates like him end up getting much lighter terms. In many cases, the sentence is less than the time served while awaiting trial.

Cook County Sheriff Dart said the typical person who would benefit from the program is someone with multiple, low-level retail theft arrests, who might sit in the jail for 200 days or more awaiting trial in the overloaded court system.

An inmate granted release without bail under the new rules may be put on electronic monitoring and attend treatment programs. If the person fails to appear in court, an arrest warrant will be issued.


In many jurisdictions around the country, defendants who pose greater risks of committing violent crimes are let out on bail while poor, low-risk defendants who cannot pay bail stay locked up for long periods, said the Vera Institute report, “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America.”

The Vera report also noted that African-American men, such as Edward, are disproportionately held pretrial as a result of an inability to post monetary bail.

In past decades, victims’ advocacy groups were among the strongest voices pushing for mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws. Now some are pushing the other way, seeing reform as a way to return the focus to violent offenders.

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, director of victims’ rights group Marsy’s Law for Illinois, said her group supports the new bill. “Money for prisons should go to house the truly dangerous.”

(This story has been corrected to make clear that the new Illinois bill was proposed by the Cook County sheriff, instead of that the sheriff simply supported the bill, in the sixth paragraph)

Editing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis