Chicago Courts’ Bail Reform Works: Study

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chicago bail protest, 2019. Photo by Charles Edward Miller via Flickr

A controversial change in pretrial release policies in Chicago’s Cook County has resulted in lower jail and prison populations as crime totals have declined, a new study concludes.

The study examined incarceration and crime before and after Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans began requiring in September 2017 that bail should be based on defendants’ ability to pay.

Critics have charged that the release policy has allowed too many dangerous suspects to be freed pending resolution of their cases. The court issued a report in May 2019 defending the policy changes.

The new report, by corrections consultants James Austin and Wendy Naro-Ware of the Denver-based JFA Institute and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, says that the pretrial jail population in Cook County has dropped from roughly 6,900 to 5,800 since the bail policy was changed.

The increase in the number of pretrial jail releases may have contributed to a decline in the Illinois prison population, Austin and Naro-Ware say.

That is because pretrial jailing often prompts suspects to plead guilty to a crime, frequently resulting in a prison term.

The number of defendants sent by Cook County to the state prison system fell from 9,709 in 2016, before the bail reform, to 6944 in 2019.

Austin and Naro-Ware’s analysis disputes two critical reports that have emerged recently about Chicago’s bail changes.

In one, the Chicago Tribune reported in February that the court’s 2019 report had undercounted the number of people who were released on bail and were later arrested for murder and other violent crimes.

The newspaper found that 97.6 percent of people released were not re-arrested for a violent crime, compared with a 99.4 percent figure in the court’s report, a difference Austin and Naro-Ware say is statistically insignificant.

In a separate paper published this year, Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles of the University of Utah S. J. Quinney College of Law asserted that the number of pretrial releases who committed violent crimes increased by an estimated 49 percent.

Austin and Naro-Ware say that increase in the number of released suspects who were rearrested was 487 compared with more than 134,000 arrests in the county overall, a number they say is “statistically and substantively insignificant.”  They also fault Cassell and Fowles for assuming that an arrested suspect was guilty.

The total number of reported crime, including violent offenses, has fallen in Cook County since the bail reform was adopted.

That does not mean that the pretrial release policy changes caused crime to decline, Austin and Naro-Ware say.

They note that crime rates generally in the U.S. have declined over the last two decades for a number of reasons, including an aging overall population, lower birth rates and, until recently during the coronavirus pandemic, relatively good economic conditions.

“Crime and jail rates can decline at the same time (as they have in Illinois and Chicago) because they are not meaningfully related to each other,” say the authors.

Cook County’s bail reform “has resulted in over 3,000 people each year who no longer are needlessly jailed because they can’t afford bail,” Austin and Naro-Ware say. “Thousands more are either spending less time in jail or avoiding prison sentences. And crime rates have dropped. By any reasonable measures, bail reform in Cook County works and is safe to use.”

This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists

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