The History of Cook County Bond Reform and Beyond

Malcolm Rich

Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, offers a look back at Cook County Courts’ bond system over the past decade– and a look at what’s next.




Over the past few years, bond reform has taken center stage for efforts to reform the Cook County Courts. In July 2017, Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans issued an order stating that no one should be incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay their bond. This directed judges to set monetary bonds only in amounts people could pay. By December 2017, three months after the implementation of the order, the Cook County Jail population had decreased by 1,500 to its lowest total in decades.


A decade ago, these changes were unthinkable. Malcolm Rich of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a research and advocacy organization that aims to identify and propose solutions to systemic problems in the courts, spoke with City Bureau about the changes within the Cook County Courts and the next battlefield for reform.


Here are some of the highlights from the conversation on the many changes to bond court over the years:


When bond court was centralized at 26th and California:

“Bond court used to be in six municipal courthouses found throughout Cook County. There was an idea that it would be more efficient to have centralized bond court at 26th Street.


“Then-Chief Judge Donald O’Connell centralized bond court for felonies on June 1, 1999 …

People get arrested, they’re held overnight at the lockup at the police station, and the next morning at 6 a.m., they get bused to 26th and California.”


When bond hearings were held via video conference:

“There used to be a podium set up in the basement of 26th and California and sort of an ancient version of a camera. Defendants would step in front of the podium… and the judge was in Room 101 and would look at the defendant on a television screen.


“Sometimes the judges would end up giving bonds to the wrong person until somebody would say ‘Judge, I think this is the wrong person.’ And lo and behold, someone could be in jail or freed on bond or have an individual recognizance bond and they didn’t deserve it because it belonged to someone else. You could end up having people who were in jail who should not have been in there and vice versa.”


When Cook County switched to in-person hearings and added pretrial services:

“On October 1, 2008, Judge Evans announced that [the Cook County Court system] was going to go to in-person hearings. In fact, it would also implement a pretrial services program, which had not been in existence since 2001 because of budgetary constraints. That all went into effect on December 1, 2008, over the great objections of the sheriff’s department that said that logistically it was not possible to take people from the basement of 26th street to the first floor safely. That all got worked out, following negotiations held in our [Appleseed] offices.”


When the Cook County Jail population started (and stopped) dropping:

“[The Chief Judge’s order to not issue money bonds in excess of what people could pay] was a key benchmark milestone in July 2017. There was a dramatic drop in jail population between September 2017 and January 2018.


“The number has now plateaued and the advocates are trying to figure out why it stopped going down. Another reason that it’s stabilized is that the length of stay in the Cook County Jail is going up. Even though you have fewer people going in, the people that are going in are staying there longer. We and another number of organizations are looking into why the length of stay is increasing.”


What the next battleground for reform will be:

“The usage of electronic monitoring had been going up since 2005 in Cook County, but it has not increased in the last year or so because of great concerns raised about the way it’s administered. You’ve got people who can’t go out on their porch without people showing up to arrest them for felony escape. Suddenly, you’ve got an additional felony on your record.


“The community organizations, including the Coalition to End Money Bond, have really picked this up as the new cause. The idea is to eliminate electronic monitoring. If we can’t eliminate electronic monitoring, we need to establish benchmarks and criteria that are fair and are uniform.”

This story is the last of a three-part series on criminal justice reform produced by City Bureau, a Woodlawn-based civic journalism lab. Learn more and get involved at

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