Lawsuit filed against Cook County for ‘excessive’ bails

Nora Shelly, City Editor

Lawyers filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of two men currently imprisoned in the Cook County jail against Sheriff Thomas Dart and several judges over “excessive” bail.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are seeking to get a declaration of the unconstitutionality of the judicial defendants’ practice of applying an Illinois state bail statute “to set a monetary bail for pretrial arrestees without a meaningful inquiry into the person’s ability to pay.”

The two men, Michael Lewis, 40, and Zachary Robinson, 25, say in the lawsuit that, during their bond hearing, the judges didn’t speak to them and set a bail after only a few minutes of deliberation.

One of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. Lawyer Alexa Van Brunt said the Center became involved in the lawsuit because they recognized posting bail was a huge problem for some people.

“Many, many people in the Cook County jail are there because they can’t pay bail, and they are kept behind bars, even though they haven’t been convicted of anything,” she said. “We suspected, based on national studies and information that we have from other jurisdictions, that there are negative implications for keeping people in jail pre-trial beyond the personal implications.”

About 90 percent of the inmates in Cook County jail are there pre-trial, Van Brunt said.

Those kept in jail pretrial because they can’t post bail are likely to lose their jobs or not be able to care for elderly parents or children, Van Brunt said.

The Center studied the fates of people who had to stay in jail pre-trial, and those who were able to post bail and leave jail.

They found those who were able to post bail were more likely to be acquitted.

“As a result of being kept in (jail) it doesn’t only affect your daily life … but you’re also more likely to suffer harsher consequences in the criminal justice system as a whole just because you’re not able to (help) your case on the outside because you’re detained instead of having the ability to mount your defense with the resources that you would have if you were free.”

Van Brunt said the center hopes to make system-wide change.

The lawsuit also argues that excessive bail violates the Civil Rights Act, as it “has the effect of subjecting African American individuals to discrimination because of their race.”

Cara Smith, the policy director for county Sheriff Thomas Dart, said she was surprised that he was named as a defendant.

Smith said Dart and her office have “long advocated” to change the way bails are set in the court system. Dart has advocated for individual defendants in cases, a change in the law surrounding bails and holding the stakeholders who do assign the bail amount accountable.

As sheriff, Smith said Dart has little control over bails given to inmates.

“We certainly agree that the bail statute in Illinois — the way it’s applied in Cook County — has a crushing impact on the poor,” Smith said. “We see it everyday.”

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