Evaluation of the Pretrial Fairness Act's Implementation in Cook County

March 28, 2024

The Civic Federation and the League of Women Voters of Cook County today released a report analyzing Cook County’s implementation of Illinois’ new pretrial law, known informally as the Pretrial Fairness Act, during the first six months since the law took effect on September 18, 2023. The two organizations have observed a mostly smooth implementation so far due to the County having been particularly well-prepared to adopt the new pretrial release process, with many of the law’s required procedures having already been instituted by the County in advance of the effective date. The Cook County Circuit Court has also begun to release data about the number of people charged with crimes and appearing in court, and the outcomes of those initial hearings. However, questions remain about the charges for which people are being detained or released, as well as recidivism and compliance with release conditions among people released from custody and awaiting trial.

The Civic Federation and League of Women Voters of Cook County find that overall, the Pretrial Fairness Act seems to be working as intended, with the goal of basing release decisions on risk to public safety rather than defendants’ access to money. The County was well prepared to implement the new law due to a combination of reforms that have taken place in the County over the past decade, the resources available to Illinois’ largest county and work conducted by Cook County stakeholders since 2021 to prepare for the legal and operational requirements under the new pretrial release procedures. 

“Our analysis indicates that Cook County benefitted from the fact that it already had several systems in place including legal representation for criminal defendants at first appearance; the use of a risk assessment tool to inform judges of defendants’ likelihood of being rearrested or not appearing in court; and a pretrial services program to oversee defendants ordered to pretrial supervision,” said Civic Federation President Joe Ferguson.  

Aside from the elimination of money as a condition of release, notable changes in court procedure since the law took effect include that defendants’ first hearings now take much longer than they did under the previous bond court system, judges’ release and detention decisions are clearly explained and both the prosecution and defense seem better prepared to argue their cases’ details and evidence before judges.

Since the law’s implementation, the County’s jail population has decreased by 13%. The number of people on each of the County’s three electronic monitoring programs has also decreased, contrary to concerns that there could be an increased reliance on restrictive conditions like electronic monitoring. The Sheriff’s electronic monitoring program, the largest of the three, decreased by 12% to 1,616 as of March 9. The Chief Judge’s curfew program decreased by 19% to 761 people monitored. And the Chief Judge’s domestic violence monitoring program decreased very slightly by 4%. At the same time, the number of people ordered to pretrial supervision in Cook County has increased by 22%. The change in pretrial services cases is something the Circuit Court says it will be monitoring over time. 

“The fact that Cook County has been releasing data about initial court hearings since the Pretrial Fairness Act took effect on September 18, 2023, is very positive, but there is more work to be done,” said Cynthia Schilsky, president of the League of Women Voters of Cook County. “The data provide a general sense of the number of people being charged with crimes and appearing in court, and the decisions about whether those defendants are held in detention or released with conditions. It does not answer some key questions, however, about criminal defendants’ charges and pretrial success rates among those released from custody—the Circuit Court has said it plans to release additional data about rates of re-offense and court appearance in the near future.”

The release of this analysis follows a previous report the Civic Federation released in partnership with the League of Women Voters of Cook County in November 2022 ahead of the Pretrial Fairness Act’s original effective date. At that time, competing narratives and misinformation campaigns spread confusion about the role of cash bail in the context of violent crime in Chicago and larger pretrial reforms throughout Illinois. 

“Illinois is the first state to completely outlaw the use of cash bail,” Ferguson said. “Initial assessments show that the elimination of cash bail and other changes to pretrial release procedures have not been the disaster that some feared. But there are still issues to be resolved, especially in smaller and less-well-resourced counties outside the Chicago area.” 

The report acknowledges that while Cook County has affected a comparatively smooth transition in implementing the requirements of the Pretrial Fairness Act, implementation in Illinois’ other 101 counties may be uneven due to varying court procedures, resource and staffing constraints, additional training needs and different interpretations of the law. The League, Federation and many other groups will continue to monitor the statewide rollout.