The politics of bail reform: Part I

WGN Investigates
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Chicago police question bail in gun cases

CHICAGO — Chicago police say they see it all too often. Officers arrest someone for illegal gun possession, and the next day that person walks out of jail.

Police officials say changes to Cook County’s bail system are partly to blame.

But is that true?

WGN Investigates reviewed data on every felony gun case from two of the city’s most historically violent weekends: Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Here’s what we found:

  •  A total of 118 adults were charged with felony weapons offenses.
  • 87 percent were released on bond. The most anyone had to pay to get out of jail before trial was $5,000.
  • 72 percent were released the same they day they were arrested, or the very next day.
  • 30 percent walked out of jail without paying any money — they received I-Bonds.

“This is not what me or the public wants,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. “The reality of it is though that gun offenders need to be treated differently than other people. In the city of Chicago with all our gun issues I think we should all agree on that.”

Two years ago, state lawmakers passed the Bail Reform Act, which sought to ensure people arrested for non-violent offenses didn’t remain behind bars pending trial, either because they were poor or couldn’t afford to pay a cash bond.

“It shouldn’t be the case that some people get to walk free because they have money and others don’t, because they don’t,” state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) said. Guzzardi was one of the act’s co-sponsors.

Recent court data shows there are fewer petty thieves sitting in jail awaiting trial. But there are also more people arrested for illegal gun possession who are returning to the streets.

Dart said he fears that’s an unintended consequence of bail reform.

“People have said under bond reform loads of good things have happened but there’s a problem with it,” he said. “They’re right. There’s a problem with it and it needs to be fixed.”

Bail reform advocates may not agree.

They say fewer than one percent of people out on bond in Cook County are re-arrested for a violent crime. But Chicago police rarely make arrests in shooting cases, which means no one knows for sure who’s pulling the trigger.

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