Lawsuit, rally draws attention to Cook County bail reform

Erin Dickson
Joe Padilla, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, joined The People’s Lobby in protest of Cook County’s cash bail system.

By Savannah Eadens

Despite attempts at criminal justice reform, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is abusing his authority to become “judge and jury” for criminally charged individuals seeking bond in Cook County Jail, said activist Irene Romulo. 

Romulo, advocacy director for Chicago Community Bond Fund, protested with a few dozen others at the Dirksen Federal Building, 219 S. Dearborn St., April 19 to support a class-action lawsuit against Dart for denying release to a defendant awaiting trial, for whom bail had already been posted. 

The rally directed attention to its Facebook event page, which accused Dart of undermining the presumption of innocence by failing to release defendants on bail or electronic monitoring. The protest on April 19 preceded a court hearing for the lawsuit, filed in February on behalf of people detained under Dart’s newly announced “review” policy for defendants already cleared for release by Cook County bond court judges, according to the suit. 

“Individuals in this country facing criminal charges are presumed innocent,” Sarah Garber, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, told the rally. “Making assumptions about someone’s level of dangerousness based on the nature of the charges they face, the neighborhood they come from, or their history of arrests in a city that has been plagued for decades by racist and corrupt policing … is a disturbing abuse of [Dart’s] power as sheriff.” 

Dart has built his reputation on jail reform, even writing in a commentary for the Chicago Tribune March 16: “Our system has always put a price on freedom. If you have enough money to pay bail, no matter the danger, you can roam free before your trial. If you don’t have cash, no matter how harmless you are, you stay behind bars. What that system gave us was both an overcrowded jail and streets filled with blood and spent shell casings.” 

Garber filed the lawsuit after Chicago resident Taphia Williams was detained in jail for more than 60 hours even after the Chicago Community Bond Fund had posted her bail so she could go free on electronic monitoring while her case was pending. 

Devoureaux Wolf, an advocate with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, also faced challenges with Dart’s review process. Wolf said he was on electronic monitoring for three months while living with his grandmother awaiting trial. He was told he could not be more than 100 feet from the home at risk of being sent back to jail, he added. 

“People on electronic monitoring are really not free,” Wolf said. “I was trapped in my grandmother’s house and couldn’t even step on the porch. It still felt like I was in jail.”

Romulo said the Chicago Community Bond Fund has obtained information with Freedom of Information Act requests revealing at least 55 people have been denied release by Dart based on his review process. 

In response to the rally and lawsuit, Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the Sheriff’s office, said Dart has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform.

“Sheriff Dart was the first law enforcement official in the nation to call for an end to cash bail,” Smith said in an April 19 email statement. “His leadership on these critical issues has included his pledge to ensure that reform does not compromise public safety. We will continue to push reform within our criminal justice system and will do so responsibly and consistent with our commitment to public safety.” 

In addition to the unfair electronic monitoring practices, Romulo said the cash bond system should be eliminated, citing the lack of evidence supporting cash bonds as increasing the likelihood that defendants will return to court. 

Rather, the city should use supportive services to invest in communities, Romulo said.