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Cash Bond Class Action That Led to Widespread Changes in Cook County Bond Court Dismissed on Legal Technicalities

A landmark class action lawsuit targeting Cook County’s unconstitutional cash bail practices, which spurred widespread reforms in pretrial detention, was dismissed by a Cook County judge due to legal technicalities. The lawsuit was filed by the MacArthur Justice Center, Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd. and the Civil Rights Corps.  The case was supported by a memo issued by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, attacking Cook County’s cash bail practices.

The class action lawsuit, Robinson v. Martin, was filed originally in 2016.  It challenged the practices of Cook County judges who ordered pre-trial detention without any consideration of arrestees’ ability to pay or alternative, non-financial conditions of release. As a result, thousands of people who were not convicted of any crime were locked up prior to trial, simply because they could not pay for their freedom.

In the two years since the case was filed, the suit has inspired increased community pressure and new action to address bond reform. In 2017, the Chief Judge of Cook County issued an Administrative Order requiring judicial findings that individuals are able to pay the assigned bond amount.  Also that year, the Illinois Legislature affirmed that judges must impose the least restrictive pre-trial conditions.  These are dramatic steps forward that have reduced the Cook County Jail population by more than 1,500 people since September 2017.

In her ruling on Tuesday afternoon, Circuit Court Judge Celia Gamrath largely ignored applicable law in dismissing the case on legal technicalities, without reaching or hearing argument on the constitutional merits of the case. Plaintiffs’ attorneys had argued that Cook County’s system of pay-for-release constituted both wealth-based discrimination, in violation of the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions, as well as race discrimination in violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act.  Black people are much less likely than white people to be released pretrial in Cook County, and are overrepresented in the Jail’s population.  The judge’s ruling did not address those claims.

Although the Chief Judge’s actions are significant, the attorneys who brought the suit argue the Administrative Order is not enough to guarantee the fundamental rights of accused individuals who are presumed innocent.  Thousands of people are still being locked up because they cannot pay the assigned bond, as evidenced by Cook County’s own numbers.  At the end of 2017 there were more than 3,200 people detained in the Cook County Jail because they could not afford the financial conditions of release.  In the first three months of 2018, over one-quarter of all defendants appearing in bond court received a cash bond; of that group, almost half were unable to post the bond.

“The Chief Judge’s Administrative Order was a significant step in the right direction but it is not a cure-all,” stated Alexa Van Brunt of the MacArthur Justice Center  “Poor people are still being locked up because they cannot pay for their release.  Black people are still incarcerated at much higher rates than white people in the County.”  Attorney Alec Karakatsanis, from Civil Rights Corp, affirmed: "This lawsuit has already led to remarkable improvement in Cook County's assembly line legal system.  But the judge's decision on a technicality yesterday threatens the permanence of those improvements and abdicates the solemn responsibility of our courts to uphold the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable people in our society, even when it is politically difficult."

Every major stakeholder in Cook County has agreed that unconstitutional wealth discrimination in Cook County must end.  Chief Judge Timothy Evans, Sheriff Tom Dart, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the Chair of the Cook County Board Criminal Justice Committee, have joined Public Defender Amy Campanelli in requesting that the Illinois Supreme Court issue a Rule requiring a court finding of ability to pay as a precondition of setting a cash bail. 

 To read the ruling, click here.

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