Class action: Cook County court bonds too high, discriminatory; keep those awaiting trial in jail too long

By Scott Holland | Oct 19, 2016

A class action complaint leveled against Cook County has accused Sheriff Tom Dart and the county of imposing onerous bonds on people charged with crimes, essentially forcing them to remain detained pending a trial. 

Zachary Robinson, 25, and Michael Lewis, 40, filed the complaint Oct. 14 in Cook County Circuit Court, naming Dart as a defendant, as well as Judges Leroy Martin Jr., E. Kenneth Wright Jr., Peggy Chiampas, Sandra G. Ramos and Adam D. Bourgeois Jr. They argue the judges “set a money bail for pretrial arrestees without a meaningful inquiry into the person’s ability to pay and in amounts in excess of what the person is able to pay,” which they claim violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, as well as the excessive bail and sufficient sureties clauses of the federal and state constitutions. 

In addition to class certification, the plaintiffs also seek a subclass because they say the targeted practice effectively discriminates against African Americans, as they allege it disproportionately affects that population. The complaint asserts “thousands of human beings in Cook County” are detained each day primarily because they cannot pay bond. 

The complaint further states that people unable to secure pretrial release are “far more likely to be both convicted and sentenced more harshly” than those who can post bond, and also are “more likely to lose their employment, housing and child custody, and they are also more likely to commit crimes in the future because of the documented criminogenic effects of even a few days in a jail cell after arrest.” 

Robinson and Lewis argue noncash bail alternatives “such as basic text message reminder systems, drug and mental health treatment programs, unsecured bond and sophisticated forms of electronic monitoring … would more effectively serve the purposes of bail, and would do so at a fraction of the cost to Illinois taxpayers without discriminating against the presumptively innocent on the basis of their economic status or race.” 

According to the complaint, Robinson was arrested on a theft charge last year, and at his Dec. 10 bond hearing, Chiampas set a $10,000 D-Bond, which requires a 10 percent deposit. At a Jan. 5 hearing, Ramos denied Robinson’s request to be released on electronic monitoring. Since he has been unable to pay the $1,000 bond, Robinson lost his job at a butcher shop and cannot continue his pursuit of an associate degree. 

Lewis was arrested on a retail theft charge on Oct. 3. That day Bourgeois set a $50,000 D-Bond. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and remains in the county jail’s residential treatment unit. Before his arrest, he was a caretaker for his godmother, who has dementia. Both men say the judges presiding over their case declined to ask about their ability to pay. 

The complaint cited 1,574 bail hearings over 30 days in early 2016 when the average D-Bond was $71,878, and compared that amount to the 2014 Cook County median household income of $54,828. It also said that from 2011 to 2013, only 15.8 percent of African American defendants facing Class 4 felony charges were released on bond as compared to 32.4 percent of those of other races. 

The plaintiff class would include any of the approximately 9,000 county jail detainees who are unable to secure the money to meet bail obligations. The defendant class, according to the complaint, includes almost 200 judges, including the named defendants. 

Robinson and Lewis seek court orders and injunctions declaring the bail practice unlawful and preventing the county from detaining any arrestees who would be released if only they could pay “without any inquiry into and findings concerning his or her ability to pay.” 

Representing the plaintiffs in this matter are lawyers from Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, of Chicago; the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, also of Chicago; and Alec Karakatsanis, of the Civil Rights Corps, of Washington, D.C.

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Organizations in this Story

Cook County Sheriff's Department Hughes Socol Piers Resnick Dym Ltd. Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center

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