Chicago Tribune Launches Racist Attack on Bail Funds While Thousands Sit in Cook County Jail at Risk of Dying From COVID-19

 In General

In an article released today, the Chicago Tribune has attacked Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) for paying bond for people who cannot afford it themselves. As much as this is an attack on pretrial freedom, it is also a defense of a two-tiered justice system, one that grants privileges to the wealthy while punishing people for poverty. This article is merely the latest in a series of racist, fearmongering attacks on pretrial justice reforms from the Tribune. Last year, a Tribune columnist backed the FOP, calling for money bonds to be used as a form of pretrial punishment. More recently, the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board suggested it was acceptable for a man with mental health needs to face serious illness and death in Cook County Jail because he had previously missed a court date. They doubled down on this message in a second editorial last week, saying, “The best advice for staying healthy [during the pandemic] is to avoid trouble with the law.”

Like the articles before it, this piece continues to use exceptional cases to rationalize the unjust incarceration of tens of thousands of people. The 162 cases examined by the Tribune between February 2017 and February 2020 in fact represent just one quarter of one percent (~.27%) of the approximately 60,000 people released pretrial in those three years. This sort of racialized fearmongering is what built mass incarceration, and it is what maintains it. As we have said time and time again, policy cannot be made from a place of fear. We must remember that for every tragic story the Chicago Tribune tells in which someone is harmed, there are tens of thousands of other stories about families reunited, evictions avoided, employment retained, access to life-saving healthcare accessed, and people who were not coerced into taking plea deals simply to get out of a cage.

The Chicago Tribune has also willfully ignored that every bond paid by the Chicago Community Bond Fund was set by a judge. Bond is a condition of pretrial release, which means it is supposed to facilitate release. As much as the Chicago Tribune may want it to be, money bond is not supposed to be a pretrial punishment. When a judge sets a money bond, that is a determination that a person is not a danger to the community or a flight risk. From that point forward, the only thing keeping the person incarcerated is their lack of access to wealth. We also know that the setting of money bonds and inability to pay them falls most heavily on Black and Brown communities. In fact, of the 84 people whose cases were reviewed by the Tribune, just two were white. By contrast, seven were Latinx, and 75 were Black. This only reinforces why paying bond for community members who cannot afford it is an important intervention to combat racism in our criminal legal system.

Since 2015, Chicago Community Bond Fund has been working to free people in Cook County from wealth-based pretrial incarceration through policy changes and the operation of our revolving bail fund. Our systems change and mutual aid work have the goal of securing the pretrial freedom of all people accused of crimes in Cook County, regardless of the charges that they’re facing. We believe that the constitutionally-protected presumption of innocence and the ability to remain in one’s community while awaiting trial should be available to everyone, not just those who can afford it. The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on just how high the stakes of an unaffordable money bond can be. In addition to causing loss of income and employment, traumatic family separation and evictions, the inability to pay a money bond now also means a high risk of contracting a life-threatening virus for which there is no known cure. 

We find it particularly despicable that the Chicago Tribune is leveling this attack on bail funds during this pandemic, when Cook County Jail has become the focal point of the nation’s outbreak and a cautionary tale of how to not handle this crisis. In September 2017, CCBF and our partners won policy changes reducing the use of money bonds and pretrial jailing in Cook County. If this progress had not been made, the number of people incarcerated in the Cook County Jail would have been closer to 7,500 instead of the 5,500 people who were placed at unacceptable risk when this pandemic began. This reduction in jailing has not only not endangered community safety, it has even coincided with an overall reduction in crime.

The authors of this article looked at 84 cases in which CCBF paid bond, just over 25% of the people we have actually helped since 2015. They used this selective and incomplete picture to try to tell our whole story. The article incorrectly states that “more than one fifth” of people bonded out violated the conditions of their bond, but this is patently false. In the last four and a half years, CCBF has paid bond for more than 333 people, 91% of whom were not rearrested while their case was pending. 

Even more importantly though, the cases the Chicago Tribune did include are riddled with errors. During the course of the “investigation,” lists of the cases and “failures” were provided to CCBF for review. In an attempt to inflate failure rates, the reporters counted warrants that were in place before we paid bond, allegations of bond violations that were later dismissed, and at least one violation of post-conviction probation, which obviously has nothing to do with bond. They used no recognizable definition of pretrial success or failure instead assembled a collection of people they attempt to frame as dangerous by combining different cases, past history, and future cases that began after the cases in which we paid bond ended. In reality, people CCBF pays bond for are significantly more likely to have their cases dismissed or be found not guilty (23%) than they are to be re-arrested (9%). In total, CCBF has saved people 36,327 days, or 99.5 years, of incarceration. This breaks down to an average of 273 days per person. For more specific analysis of case outcomes, see this fact sheet .

The reasons why people miss court are varied and cannot be understood by simply reviewing the clerk’s records. As one example, the Tribune reporters’ analysis originally concluded that a young woman CCBF paid bond for missed court and violated her bond. While it is true this woman failed to show up at a court date, it was because she had been murdered by an abusive domestic partner. This tragic reality underscores the absurdity of understanding situations through simple court records. CCBF had paid her bond in part because she was forced to give birth while in custody and was at risk of permanently losing her children if she was not freed. Even if this young woman had missed court, violated conditions of her release, or been rearrested, we would still stand by our decision to secure her freedom from jail because the benefits of her freedom outweighed any concerns about compliance with the court.

Another individual the reporters attempt to make an example of was incarcerated for five years while awaiting trial before we paid his bond, a fact the Tribune makes no note of. To argue that it was CCBF who failed by intervening to free him rather than focusing on the court system’s failure to provide him with a speedy trial is to focus their efforts on the entirely wrong part of the story. People are not statistics, and they are not defined by their relationship to the criminal legal system.

The article once again attempts to connect bond reform to gun violence, though it cites no evidence for this suggestion. In fact, the more than 50% reduction in the number of people in Cook County Jail in recent years has coincided with an overall decline in violent crime in Chicago, which has continued during the COVID-19 related releases.

If the Chicago Tribune is actually concerned with community safety, it should direct its investigative resources toward the impact of inequity, disinvestment, discrimination, and lack of opportunity that drives interpersonal violence. If criminalization and incarceration created safety, the United States would be the safest country in the world, given our unparalleled incarceration rate. Additionally, our criminal legal system does nothing to support victims of crime or make them whole; it can only punish. This same system does not prevent harm and may even make it more likely in the future. Much violence is a result of unhealed trauma, which the system does not heal and in fact compounds by adding more shame, isolation, and stigma. Many of the same voices calling for more pretrial punishment are the same ones calling for cuts to programs that benefit victims and strengthen impoverished communities. We cannot incarcerate our way out of violence. Valuing the lives of victims means focusing on prevention and root causes, not merely advocating for punishment after violence occurs.

We have done the research, we have analyzed the data, and the fact cannot be any clearer: pretrial incarceration and unaffordable money bonds are tearing communities apart and making us all less safe. People incarcerated pretrial lose their jobs, homes, and even custody of their children—not even because of a conviction but because of an accusation. The harms of pretrial incarceration don’t stop with the individuals being jailed. The negative impacts ripple out and affect entire communities, leading to the long term destabilization of communities that are already targeted by criminalization. This system disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities and people living in poverty. 

Paying bond for people who cannot afford it is not a solution to the harms perpetuated by our criminal legal system. That is why CCBF has focused on systems change, particularly the elimination of money bond. For too long, thousands of people have been jailed while still awaiting trial simply because they lack access to wealth. Reducing the use and impact of money bond and pretrial jailing mitigates the harm of a fundamentally unfair system that results in increased racial disparities, wrongful convictions, more people going to prison, and ultimately, even more crime. Studies show that jailing people pretrial increases their likelihood of arrest in the future.

Until money bond is abolished, we will continue to operate our bail fund. If we actually want to keep our communities safe, we need to increase pretrial freedom and invest in disenfranchised communities with educational resources, physical and mental health services, employment programs, affordable housing, and community-driven economic development. We all want to live in safe, thriving communities, and we cannot achieve that goal by continuing to criminalize poverty.

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