Observations of Cook County Felony Bond Court Hearings: Analysis and Recommendations


November 03, 2022

Executive Summary 

Throughout the course of eight weeks during summer 2022, the Civic Federation, in partnership with the League of Women Voters of Cook County, observed felony bond court hearings in Cook County. The purpose of the project was to assess current proceedings and pretrial release decisions in felony bond hearings. This court watching project aimed to answer certain questions about bond court decisions that we have been unable to ascertain from data released by the Cook County Circuit Court, such as differences in release decisions between bond court judges, what kinds of release orders and release conditions are ordered by judges for particular types of charges or how closely judges appear to follow pretrial release recommendations based on pretrial risk assessments. Court observers collected data in 1,052 individual bond hearings including the name of the judge, the defendant’s charges, release recommendations based on pretrial risk assessments and the judges’ ultimate release orders, including any conditions of release.

This report serves as an update five years following the implementation of a bail reform policy in Cook County in 2017 and a precursor to new pretrial reforms set to take effect January 1, 2023 through Public Act 101-652, referred to as the SAFE-T Act.

The report presents the following key findings:

  • Top Charges: Among the 1,040 cases for which court observers were able to capture the charges against the defendant, the largest portion, 45%, were for illegal gun possession. The next two most frequent charges were for drug possession (14%) and drug sales (9%), together totaling 23% of cases.
  • Pretrial Release Decisions by Bond Type: In the sample of cases observed, judges ordered D-Bonds, which require payment of 10% of the dollar amount ordered by the judge in order to be released, in 66% of cases. I-Bonds, which do not require posting money for release, were ordered in 27% of cases. No bail, meaning the defendant was ordered to be held in detention, was ordered in 6% of cases. Cash Bonds, or C-Bonds, which require payment of 100% of the dollar amount ordered by the judge, were ordered in 1% of cases.
  • Use of Money Bond: State statute contains an existing presumption toward release conditions that are non-monetary in nature.  Additionally, Cook County established a policy in 2017 requiring that conditions of release be non-monetary and the least restrictive necessary to reasonably assure the appearance of the defendant in court. Despite these presumptions toward non-monetary pretrial release, judges in Cook County ordered monetary bond in 66% of cases through the form of D-Bonds, and another 1% in the form of C-Bonds.
  • Pretrial Release Decisions by Type of Charge: I-Bonds were ordered most frequently for drug sales and drug possession cases, whereas D-Bonds were frequently ordered in other types of top charges. D-Bonds were ordered by judges in the majority of cases involving “person” charges. For example, D-Bonds accounted for 80% or more of release orders in cases involving aggravated battery, gun possession, other gun charges and “other person” charges, and in 65% of robbery charges. No Bail was ordered frequently in more serious “person” charges: for example, in 78% of murder charges and 35% of robbery charges.
  • Affordable Money Bonds: In addition to presumptions toward non-monetary pretrial release, Illinois statute and Cook County policy also require that the bail amount be considerate of the defendant’s financial ability. Cook County’s General Order 18.8A requires that when monetary release is deemed necessary to ensure public safety or the defendant’s appearance in court, the dollar amount must be considerate of the person’s ability to pay. However, the analysis found that 72% of the D-Bonds ordered by Cook County judges were amounts defendants indicated they could not afford; only 28% were dollar amounts the defendants said they could afford. Court observers noted that negotiations over the bail amount often occurred between judges and defense counsel to reach an agreed-upon dollar amount, and judges sometimes stated reasons for going above the amount the person said they could afford based on the nature of the charges or the person’s criminal history.
  • Use of Pretrial Release Conditions: In general, judges ordered more restrictive conditions, such as electronic monitoring, for people charged with more serious charges involving a victim or use of force, gun possession or other gun charges (such as discharge of a firearm). Pretrial Monitoring and Pretrial Supervision, which require varying levels of court date reminders and check-ins with pretrial officers, were most frequently ordered for non-violent crimes such as drug and property charges.
  • Electronic Monitoring: A total of 233 defendants, or 22% of all cases observed, were ordered to the Sheriff’s electronic monitoring (EM) program (this includes EM ordered with any bond type—D-Bonds, I-Bonds and C-Bonds). Another 48 defendants, or 4.5% of total cases observed, were ordered to the Chief Judge’s Curfew electronic monitoring program. A small number of defendants—13—were ordered to the Chief Judge’s GPS electronic monitoring program, which is typically used in cases involving domestic violence and orders of protection.
  • Violations of Bail: Of the 1,052 total bond hearings observed, 126 people appearing in bond court, or 12%, had violated their conditions of bail on pending pretrial cases. Another 90 defendants, or 9% of cases observed, had violated probation or parole. The majority of these arrests were for nonviolent offenses. The most frequent new charge was for illegal gun possession, followed by drug possession and drug sales. More serious person-related crimes were much less frequent. Six people who had violated bail were charged with murder. There were no cases observed in which defendants in violation of their probation were charged with murder.
  • Observations of Bond Court Judges: The bond court judges were observed to be professional and thoughtful in their conduct, and considerate of all factors involved in each case, including the defendant’s current charges, criminal history and home or work situation. They also frequently acknowledged when family members were present in court and how much the defendant or their family said they could post for bond. While court watchers did not identify any glaring outliers, some judges during the study ordered more stringent release conditions than others for similar types of charges.