Despite the fact that judges are the ones who set bail, one Cook County court judge, Judge Celia Gamrath, says it is up to lawmakers, rather than judges, to determine how judges are allowed to set bail.
The issue in question is the fact that Cook County judges have been using a cash bail system. The intention behind such a system is to give defendants a reason to appear in court, but a recent class-action lawsuit alleges it has also had the effect of discriminating against minorities and the poor, who are often unable to come up with the cash necessary to pay their own bail.
The lawsuit was filed against five Cook County court judges on behalf of two detainees who sat in jail for almost a year because they couldn’t afford to post their own bail. They both eventually pled guilty to the charges against them.
Alexa Van Brunt, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit against the judges, said they plan to appeal Judge Gamrath’s decision, claiming they hadn’t even had a chance to fully explain their arguments regarding the allegedly unconstitutional nature of the current cash bail system before Judge Gamrath dismissed them.
Van Brunt noted that the lawsuit might feel political to Gamrath because the class action is asking her to make a ruling about other Circuit Court judges. In fact, that’s not what they’re trying to do at all – instead, they are just asking the judge to help make sure the courts follow the law. But Van Brunt claimed the judge chose to get the lawsuit off her desk rather than face the consequences of ruling on a potentially sticky situation.
The good news is that changes have been made to Cook County’s bail system, just not as much as the plaintiffs’ attorneys would like to see.
The judges are being represented by the office of Illinois’s attorney general, which released a statement saying that steps have been taken to reform the bail system since the class action lawsuit was first filed back in 2016. For example, in 2017, Chief Judge Timothy Evans moved to forbid judges from setting bail amounts that are higher than the defendants would be able to pay. Although this isn’t exactly what the current class action lawsuit against the judges is seeking, the attorney general’s office claims it achieves essentially the same effect. It also points to data from the chief judge’s office that says that, as a result of the change, the proportion of felony defendants who have been released without having to pay anything in bail has risen significantly.
Van Brunt acknowledged that the reforms that have been made are a good start, but she insists it’s not enough. She pointed out that Evans’s order won’t carry the same weight as another judge’s ruling that the cash bail system is unconstitutional and needs to be banned. She also noted that there are still many people (particularly people of color) who remain unconstitutionally locked up in a jail cell because they cannot afford to post their bail.
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