Facts Contradict Sheriff Dart’s Fear-Mongering about Bond Reform, Cook County Is Leading In Pretrial Justice Reforms

Last night, ABC-7 ran a misleading story on the impact of bond reform in Cook County. The one-sided piece was informed by Sheriff Tom Dart, who believes that reforms to Cook County’s pretrial justice system have “gone too far.” Sheriff Dart has recently begun pushing for a more conservative, law-and-order approach to pretrial incarceration, including objecting to the release of people pretrial. It is important for there to be an ongoing dialogue across the County as pretrial justice reform progresses, but Sheriff Dart’s fear-mongering is not a productive part of that conversation. Instead, he calls upon racialized stereotypes of people accused of crimes to provoke unwarranted panic rather than a solutions-oriented response supported by data, that centers community wellness. The Sheriff’s assertions about the current state of electronic monitoring (EM) are plagued by vague and unclarified statements that demand context.

Over the last two years, the number of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail has decreased by more than 1,800 people. At the same time, crime rates—including most “violent” crime—have reached new historic lows. Bond reforms are enabling people to remain free while their cases are pending, and many will never be convicted of a crime at all. Over the last 18 months, nearly 20,000 people have been released pretrial in Cook County. Bond Reform has begun to effectively restore the presumption of innocence and prevent poor people from languishing in Cook County Jail because they are unable to pay money bonds.

As data from the Office of the Chief Judge has shown, the vast majority of people released pretrial attend all of their court dates and are not rearrested while their cases are pending. Even fewer people, just half of one percent, are rearrested for violent crimes after being released. This real-life data shows that people released pretrial, including on EM, are overwhelmingly successful. Furthermore, pretrial release prevents countless negative impacts on accused people and their families. Communities are able to remain together, and families and individuals are able to keep their jobs and housing and maintain custody of their children.

This new ABC-7 story and previous press blitzes by Sheriff Dart attempt to use a relatively small number of incidents as an excuse to deny tens of thousands of people their pretrial liberty. Over time, policies that are based on these irrational fears will disrupt and potentially destroy the lives of thousands of individuals and their families and communities. Furthermore, everyone labeled as an “offender” in the story is merely accused and legally presumed innocent of the charges against them.

CCBF Advocate Lavette Mayes and Co-Executive Director Sharlyn Grace were also featured in this piece. Their three-second sound bites were pulled from an hour-long interview in which they discussed the significant hardships that result from time spent on EM and why it is important to enact changes that actually promote community building and safety, rather than doubling down on reactionary, punitive measures. Every day, CCBF sees the rights of people on EM routinely and arbitrarily denied by the Sheriff’s Office, as they are denied the ability to leave their homes for everything from buying groceries to receiving life-saving cancer treatments. Our comments were used out of context by ABC-7 to make it appear that CCBF believes fewer people should be released pretrial on EM because it’s ineffective, when we were actually saying it is too restrictive. Replacing jail with EM does not erase the problems of mass incarceration. People should not be incarcerated pretrial, whether at 26th and California or in their own homes. CCBF remains committed to fighting for the freedom of the more than 2,000 people currently incarcerated in Cook County Jail simply because they can’t afford to pay a money bond and everyone incarcerated in their homes on electronic monitoring.

This deceptive “if it bleeds it leads” style of reporting has serious consequences for people in the Cook County criminal legal system. For the last year, much of our local press has chosen to ignore that Cook County is leading the way in reforming our pretrial justice system. There have been no reports highlighting the people that were not evicted from their homes, the people that maintained their employment or were able to continue attending school, or the parents that kept custody of their children because they were released pretrial. There are quite literally thousands of these stories in Cook County, and they deserve to be heard.

A new day is dawning in Cook County: one where there is no longer a place for racist “law and order” Sheriffs like Tom Dart. If the Sheriff is interested in working with the rest of the County to find ways to promote public safety while also recognizing the destructive effect that mass incarceration has had on Cook County, he needs to contextualize his conservative rhetoric with honesty and integrity. Dart’s implication that thousands more people should be in jail pretrial simply because of a small number of incidents is more likely to increase his own enormous budget than to protect the communities most at risk of violent crime—the same communities destabilized by decades of pro-incarceration policies. It should be noted that while the number of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail has dropped by 44% since 2013, the Sheriff’s budget has increased by 28%. The Sheriff’s plays for greater funding are dishonest and ignore the fact that the number of people in his jail has already decreased tremendously. Cook County should be investing in increased security and safety for marginalized communities by allocating more funding towards educational access, physical and mental health services, and employment programs.

CCBF is invested in working with impacted people and communities, as well as policy experts, to examine how EM harms families and neighborhoods around the county. Sheriff Dart’s misleading and reactionary statements show that Cook County doesn’t need more “law and order,” but instead needs a community of people committed to each other—not to their own individual power or monetary gain.

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