Report Finds Bail Reform in Chicago Reduced Pretrial Incarceration Without Hurting Public Safety

A growing body of evidence suggests that it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate the use of money bail without increasing crime.

Report Finds Bail Reform in Chicago Reduced Pretrial Incarceration Without Hurting Public Safety

A growing body of evidence suggests that it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate the use of money bail without increasing crime.

Amid a national debate over reducing or eliminating the use of money bail, critics of reform efforts have argued that releasing more people pretrial will lead to increases in crime and other threats to public safety, often relying on high-profile incidents of violence in lieu of comprehensive data. A new report by researchers at Loyola University Chicago published today may help put these claims to rest.  

The report, which was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, examined the effect of Cook County, Illinois’s 2017 bail reform initiative, General Order 18.8A (GO 18.8A), which instituted a presumption of release without bond for most people charged with felonies and required judges to only impose bonds that defendants were able to afford.

The report found that the number of people released without bail—nearly 6,500—was double what would be expected before GO 18.8A in the six months after bail reform, helping defendants and their families save more than $31 million that they otherwise would have paid to secure release from jail. At the same time, crime rates in Cook County remained stable, and people released under GO 18.8A were no more likely to be rearrested after their release than people released before the reforms. According to the report’s authors, these findings add to a growing body of evidence that shows releasing people without bail doesn’t harm public safety.

“Opponents of bail reform may continue to argue that reducing the use of monetary bail and increasing the number of people released pretrial will result in more defendants committing more crimes while on pretrial release,” the report’s authors wrote. “But that is not what happened following bail reform in Cook County, consistent with experiences following bail reform in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.” 

Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans issued GO 18.8A in September 2017 to address concerns that people charged with crimes in the county were being detained pretrial solely because of their inability to afford bail. At the time, Cook County Jail was the largest single-site jail facility in the country, housing nearly 7,000 people on any given day in conditions that critics called overcrowded and unsanitary. In the 15 months after the order was issued, Cook County’s jail population fell by 16 percent as more people were released pretrial without having to pay bail. 

In May 2019, a report by the circuit court declared the reform a success, writing that GO 18.8A “allowed more defendants to remain in their communities prior to trial, where they can work, pursue their education and support their families. The vast majority of released defendants appear in court for all hearings. Bail reform has not led to an increase in violent crime in Chicago.”

But in early June 2019, local law enforcement officials, including Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, argued that bail reform was responsible for spikes in gun violence. A month later, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot raised concerns that too many people charged with gun offenses were being released under the reforms, despite the fact that fewer than 2 percent of people charged with gun offenses since the reform had been arrested for violent crimes after their release.

Skeptics of bail reform also disputed the findings of the circuit court’s 2019 report. They argued that it undercounted the number of violent crimes committed by people released pretrial and failed to account for other factors that may have affected crime rates in Cook County after the implementation of GO 18.8A, such as seasonal changes in crime rates and the hiring of hundreds of new police officers in Chicago in 2017 and 2018.

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The new report addressed these issues by adopting a broader definition of violent crime that includes misdemeanors and by using a statistical model to control for extraneous factors that may have impacted crime rates, including weather and policing levels. Even after making these adjustments, however, the researchers confirmed the 2019 report’s initial findings. “GO18.8A increased the use of I-Bonds,” they wrote, “decreased the financial burden on defendants and their families, and increased the percent and number of people released pretrial—all without affecting new criminal activity of those released or increasing crime.” 

Judge Evans said in a press release: “This study confirms what our office has previously determined in our own review—that bail reform furthers the cause of justice and equality by releasing defendants not deemed a danger to any person or the public. Defendants should not be sitting in jail awaiting trial simply because they lack the financial resources to ensure their release.” 

The study’s findings echo the conclusions of researchers who have examined bail reform initiatives in other jurisdictions across the country. An analysis published this week by the Prison Policy Initiative examined data from four states, as well as nine cities and counties, that have enacted bail reform measures. All but one saw no significant increase in crime rates; the lone exception, New York State, implemented its reforms earlier this year before rolling back many provisions in April, so comprehensive data on the effect of the reforms remain unavailable. 

In New Jersey, the largest jurisdiction in the United States to virtually eliminate the use of money bail, jail populations fell by 45 percent between 2015 and 2019, coinciding with a nearly 20 percent drop in the state’s violent crime rate and an 18 percent drop in the property crime rate, according to FBI data

“Like these other reform efforts, GO 18.8A demonstrates that it is possible to decrease the use of monetary bail and decrease pretrial detention—and lessen the financial, physical, and psychological harms that come with pretrial detention—without affecting criminal activity or crime rates,” the Loyola University report’s authors wrote.

Nationwide, nearly half a million legally innocent people are incarcerated in local jails on any given day, often because they cannot afford to pay money bail. Research has found that even short stays in jail can lead to lost jobs and housing, and defendants who are incarcerated pretrial are more likely to plead guilty than those who are able to pay for their release. Additionally, Black and Latinx people are more likely to be incarcerated pretrial than white people charged with similar crimes.

Despite the progress made since 2017, advocates for eliminating money bail altogether say that Cook County still has a long way to go. Despite GO 18.8A’s prohibition of unaffordable bonds, a report published in September by the Coalition to End Money Bond found that roughly a quarter of people detained in the Cook County Jail remained in custody on money bonds. Additionally, data collected by the bond fund’s court-watching program showed that even during the height of the pandemic, the county’s judges have continued to impose unaffordable bonds on defendants, with some judges setting bonds at unaffordable levels in more than a third of all cases.

“Unconstitutional, unaffordable money bonds were the single largest reason people were admitted to Cook County Jail during the pandemic,” the report said.

Additionally, the Loyola University report found that even after the 2017 reforms, nearly 20 percent of all people charged with crimes in Cook County remained in jail for the duration of their cases, which can last months or even years.  

According to Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, these shortcomings are difficult to address on a local level, because GO 18.8A lacks a robust enforcement mechanism, and Illinois state law still allows judges to set unaffordable money bail. 

“As long as state law authorizes judges to use money bond, they’re going to use it,” Grace said. “That’s why we’re focused on statewide legislative reforms that would eliminate the possibility of using money bond.”

Earlier this month, state Senator Robert Peters and state Representative Justin Slaughter introduced the Pretrial Fairness Act, which would eliminate money bond in Illinois. In October, Governor J.B. Pritzker reaffirmed his support of abolishing money bail, saying in a press release, “The governor remains committed to ending a system that disproportionately forces low-income families and people of color into a disruptive cycle of unearned detention and instability.”

Pritzker, however, supports the use of pretrial risk assessment tools, despite the fact that data from Cook County and other jurisdictions show that the majority of “high risk” defendants comply with all conditions of their pretrial release. His office has not commented on whether he will support the Pretrial Fairness Act. 

Until statewide reforms become a reality, Grace says that she and other advocates are focused on encouraging judges and prosecutors in Cook County to release as many people as possible, especially since the county’s jail has been one of the largest COVID-19 hotspots in the country.

“The number of [COVID-19] cases in the jail has doubled in the last week,” Grace said. “So the fact that not only have we returned to pre-pandemic numbers of people in county jail, but we’ve done so while there are 800 more people on electronic monitoring every day …  is a very disturbing trend.”

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