Being poor shouldn't determine how long you stay behind bars, but a cash bond that exceeds one’s resources, or the ability to hire a high-profile lawyer does play a role.
The bail issue is the focus of a nationwide project called 3DaysCount, an initiative of the Pretrial Justice Institute that promotes common-sense release practices for misdemeanor defendants who pose no risk to public safety.
Their argument: When even a bond of $150 keeps someone jailed for three or more days, he or she can lose a job, housing or enrollment in a class. Using a risk assessment program to determine whether or when a defendant will re-offend is a much better way to work with defendants and keep jail cells available for serious offenders.
In a McLean County pilot program, judges are provided an evaluation form from court services that asks the same questions of all defendants. The answers, and the charge, determine a recommendation on bond and whether the person is an appropriate candidate for release.
As reported last week, Illinois is evaluating bond policies in the state's 24 judicial circuits as part of the 3DaysCount campaign.
In McLean County, the majority of those charged with misdemeanor offenses in 2016 spent less than 24 hours in jail before their release, according to data provided to the McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
About 70 percent those booked on a low-level offense spent less than a day in jail. Another 17 percent stayed 24 to 72 hours and 13 percent were in jail more than 72 hours.
In the pilot program, about 82 percent of those screened by court services for a misdemeanor offense were recommended for release.
Bail, the amount a person arrested must pay for release from custody, is based on a person’s criminal history, likelihood to return to court and risk to public safety. Judges are given discretion within a framework of rules. Often, defendants can post 10 percent of the bail amount, plus a court fee of $35.
In some courts, judges also allow "PR" or "I" bonds that are personal recognizance or individual bonds, respectively. Those involve no money and are basically just a written promise the person will return for the next court appearance.
Obviously, lower bonds and PR bonds are the least expensive, and thus easiest, to post. But for those who cannot come up with the fee, the only alternative is to stay in custody.
McLean County has worked hard to reduce its inmate population in recent years and is in the midst of an ongoing jail expansion. Some inmates were jailed, rather than hospitalized, because of mental health issues; others could have been released into monitored programs; still others stayed at the jail because of a lack of space in Illinois prisons.
Jailing misdemeanor suspects who pose no public risk is an expensive — and often unnecessary — move whose time should near its end.