Arrestees Get Their Day—and Face—in Court

In-person bail hearings may ease jail crowding

This week, the courthouse at 26th St and California Avenue eliminated video bail hearings, a move long sought after by civil rights attorneys.

Closed-circuit hearings began in bond court in June 1999. A camera transmitted new arrestees' images from the basement cellblock where they were held to a judge's monitor in the courtroom.

But for years, civil rights lawyers have argued that in-person hearings are fairer.

In fact, a Northwestern University study released last week found that bail amounts for most felony crimes increased by 65 percent since video hearings began.

Rob Wildeboer at Chicago Public Radio argues this is because bond hearings often last less than 30 seconds:

"Not exactly enough time for the judge to figure out if someone is a threat to the community, so the judges have traditionally just given high bonds. That resulted in a de facto policy of poor people getting stuck in jail waiting for trial because they couldn't afford the bond."

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart supports the change, his spokesperson Steve Patterson told the Sun-Times, even if it may cause him a few staffing headaches. In January, the sheriff will transfer seven deputies from the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center's midnight shift and several deputies from the criminal courts to guard the bond court.

The in-person hearings will allow judges to collect more information on arrestees' backgrounds—like stability of residence, employment, and criminal history.

"With the added information, the court will feel more secure in providing a bond where a person is released without having to post any particular financial amount or a lower bond that might be reachable," said Timothy Evans, Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Also, nonviolent arrestees may be more likely to be placed under electronic monitoring rather than be kept in jail, Patterson said. This would alleviate prison crowding.

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