Crime and Courts

Argument Rages Over Release of Offenders Awaiting Trial

Cook County's chief judge says the practice hasn't contributed to more crime. But a 2020 study questions his math.

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With Chicago's unrelenting gun violence manifested in a series of high-profile shootings this week, Police Supt. David Brown once again raged against Cook County's bail reform efforts, which he says have led to the release of dangerous offenders awaiting trial.

"There are too many violent offenders and too little consequences in our courts," Brown said. "How many people think it's OK to have over 90 people on electronic monitoring charged with murder released back into our community?"

But Cook County's Chief Judge Timothy Evans argues his bail reform efforts are working and that the vast majority of those released from jail do not re-offend while awaiting trial.

"Bail reform ... is based on the constitutional principle that people should not be punished by imprisonment before they are tried," he noted, pointing to a previous internal report and a Loyola University study which concluded that "bail reform has kept hundreds out of jail, while not contributing to a rise in crime."

But a different report, from the University of Utah Quinney College of Law, came to a very different conclusion.

"We find that contrary to the study's suggestion of stability," the Utah authors write, "the number of crimes committed by pretrial releases appears to have significantly increased."

Professors Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles said their study concluded Cook County had used flawed methodology in reaching their conclusions that crime in the county had not increased. Among other problems, they argue the county based its "before" period during an especially violent time in Chicago, and that those studied after the reforms were implemented were not followed for the same length of time as prior offenders.

The Utah study concluded that after bail reforms were implemented in Cook County, the number of released defendants charged with new crimes increased by about 45%, and those charged with new violent crimes went up by about 33%.

"If you take a pool of very dangerous people and you release more of them onto the streets, it's not surprising to find that some percentage of those end up committing new crimes," Cassell told NBC 5. "You can have bail reform or you can have more crime, and you have to assess how the costs and benefits shake out."

Indeed, Cassell argues that even if Cook County's contention that the crime rate remained flat was true, it would still mean more crime, because the same crime rate would be applied to a bigger number of offenders.

"More people out means more people committing crimes," he said.

Brown has argued that aside from putting the public at risk, bail reform sends the wrong message to the public -- that consequences are slight, even if you're caught.

"It creates this idea of lawlessness for people in the community, who know someone murdered someone, and yet they see them again the following day as if nothing happens," he said.

Cassell, the Utah professor, says the Cook County discussion is part of a larger debate about bail reform nationwide. But he believes his findings should be examined closely as that debate moves forward.

"Clearly a significant percentage of people who are charged with crimes are guilty of those crimes, and if you release them, I think it's just common sense that they're going to create risk to the public," he said. "So you have to strike a proper balance between protecting the public, and protecting individual liberties in the course of pre-trial detention."

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