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Chief judge slows rollout of later bond hearings after key officials raise concern

Timothy C. Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, agreed to slow the rollout of an order that would change the time of bond hearings from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. after five key criminal justice officials voiced concern. Just two of the five Chicago branch courts will undergo the change for now. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Plans to delay bond hearings at Chicago branch courts by more than four hours have been slowed after five top Cook County criminal justice players voiced concern about the rollout.

A joint letter signed by officials including Sheriff Tom Dart and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx expressed concern to Chief Judge Timothy Evans about how the time change could result in defendants charged with misdemeanors lingering in custody for hours longer.

"It seems particularly unprecedented to have all the stakeholders in the county making this plea to the chief judge," said Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the sheriff’s office. "We’re not always on the same side of issues when it comes to reform."

Chicago’s five branch courts currently hold bond hearings in the morning, usually 9 a.m. Judges there decide whether defendants will be held on bond or released with instructions to appear at their next court date.

Evans previously had planned to push all those hearings to 1:30 p.m. to allow more time for staffers to assess defendants’ backgrounds and flight risk so judges could have more information to make their bond decisions.

That delay would have meant holding people accused of minor crimes for as long as eight hours in many instances, even if a judge ultimately decides they should be released on their own recognizance, Smith said.

"It will take a tremendous toll on the human beings that are in the bond court," Smith said.

The letter, also signed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and Public Defender Amy Campanelli, urged Evans to make sure any time change "be made with full consideration of the impact it may have on individuals involved in the court system."

In response, the chief judge’s office agreed to slow the rollout. The tentative order, likely to be signed later this month, changes misdemeanor bond hearings to 1:30 p.m. at just two of the five branch courts at this point — Branch 35 on the Far South Side and Branch 43 in the Lawndale neighborhood.

An exception would be made for cases in which prosecutors agree ahead of time not to seek a cash bond. Those cases would still go in front of a judge at 9 a.m.

Ultimately, the office still plans to change the bond hearing time to 1:30 p.m. at all five branch courts.

A letter from Evans in response noted that the county already has approved money for additional staffers to carry out risk assessments for misdemeanor defendants, a process already in place for those charged with felonies. He argued that those assessments may reduce jail population more effectively than other proposed solutions.

"Any concern about how much (the time change) will cost is not considering the fact that we are working to reduce the larger long-term costs of pre-trial jail incarceration," said Pat Milhizer, a spokesman for the chief judge’s office. "So this is an upfront investment now that will likely lead to savings in the long run and give more defendants a chance to be released before trial."

Officials gave dramatically different numbers when asked how many misdemeanor cases are heard in the branch bond courts every day.

Evans’ office said, on average, there are 10 people in each of the five branches daily. According to the sheriff’s office, though, that number is closer to 45 in each of the branches.

Neither office could explain that discrepancy.

Preckwinkle and other county officials have made reform of the bond system a significant priority. Dart has publicly called for abolishing cash bonds altogether.

Critics say requiring defendants to post bond unfairly targets the poor and that judges rarely know enough about a defendant to decide whether they might try to flee or harm others while out on bail.

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