A look at bond court as the criminal justice system prepares for the end of cash bail
Starting on Monday Illinois becomes the first in the nation to end the practice of cash bail in the criminal justice system.
Therefore, bond court will no longer exist.
On any given day in Winnebago County bond court, the court clerk announces the next case, and the door to the holding area opens.
A defendant appears with their hands shackled, linked to a chain around their waist that runs to the cuffs on their feet.
In about a 10-to-15-minute timespan a defendant stands before the judge as he decides whether a defendant will be free to go home and return to court as their case progresses or whether they’ll stay in jail until they’ve paid a bond amount the judge has determined.
Monday tends to be the busiest day in bond court since those who have been arrested from Saturday afternoon up until Sunday will have their bond hearing. There are no bond hearings on Sunday.
At the defendant’s table is Attorney Nick Zimmerman, the head of the Winnebago County Public Defender’s Office.
The judge assigns Zimmerman on the spot to represent a defendant when the accused doesn’t have a lawyer and doesn’t have the means to hire one, which was about all cases.
“I still have prepared for what arguments I'm going to make with respect to any given client based on the pretrial services report and other information that I have,” Zimmerman said, "but I'm not appointed until that moment.”
When the SAFE-T Act goes into effect on Monday, this will change.
Zimmerman said the public defender’s office will be appointed to represent a defendant ahead of time, allowing for attorneys to meet with certain clients prior to facing a judge.
He said in meeting with a client prior to their hearing, an attorney may be able to glean some information not found in a pretrial services report.
“For example, that this person lives with their mother at this address, and then you go meet with them and it turns out that they're actually the caretaker for the mother,” Zimmerman said.
“And their mother's bedridden or something of that sort,” he said.
He said that’s the kind of information that may not turn up in the pretrial services report.
“And that's something that would probably be important for a judge to know, in deciding whether or not to release this person.
Currently the judge takes into consideration a score when making their decision on whether to grant someone a bond or release them with no bond.
The score is calculated in the pretrial services report that involves several factors including a person’s criminal history.
The majority of the cases before the judge in bond court are considered domestic cases such as a violation of an order of protection, a domestic battery charge, and aggravated battery.
“That seems to be about half to three quarters of what we're dealing with on a daily basis,” he said.
Some disputes involve intimate relationships, others are within families.
In one case, the judge decides to release a defendant, but orders him to have no contact with his mother, father and brother.
In another case, the judge issues a bond and orders a mental health evaluation after the defendant threatens to cause self-harm.
Her family sat in the courtroom and the judge’s ruling, they approached the bailiff to seek how to get her the medicine she needs while in jail.
In the current system, those with domestic cases such as a battery charge, may be let out under a bond. That changes under the new system.
“Under the Safety Act, it may be that they are detained because of the category of offense that they're facing,” Zimmerman said.
Under the new policy, all domestic charges are subject to detention.
“So, it's possible that more people charged with domestic batteries would be lodged in jail than under the current law,” Zimmerman said.
And yet, he said how the law is applied depends on how others in the criminal justice system adapt the law.
“There's a lot of different components to all of this. And, you know, every part of the process kind of has a ripple effect,” Zimmerman said.
“So, my department is impacted by what the state does, and the state's impacted by what law enforcement does and I'm also impacted by what law enforcement does,” he said.
For now, Zimmerman said he’s prepared as can be for the end of cash bail, and also recognized that what’s planned now may change as policy moves to practice.