Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks to A.D. Quig of The Daily Line for the Aldercast. [Don Vincent/The Daily Line]

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle vowed to redouble her efforts to make the county’s criminal justice system more equitable by ending the requirement for those arrested for crimes to have enough cash on hand to pay their way out of jail.

The county has slowly changed the way its criminal justice system operates during Preckwinkle’s first two terms as part of a collaborative effort with the chief judge, state’s attorney, sheriff, public defender and the clerk of the court.

Preckwinkle’s longtime goal has been to reduce the number of people held behind bars simply because they cannot afford to pay, she said on The Daily Line’s Aldercast, and she supports efforts to abolish the cash bail system.  

“We’ve been at it now for five and a half years, and what we’ve seen is a dramatic reduction in the jail population as a result of our decreased reliance on cash bonds,” she said. “When we started this initiative, two-thirds of the people who came in bond court got a cash bond and one third got released on their own recognizance or electronic monitoring, and now it’s the reverse.”

State Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago), a former staffer to Cook County Comm. Stanley Moore (D-4), introduced a bill to eliminate cash bond entirely this session. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx backed the measure, which drew criticism from some law enforcement groups who contend it would puncture their budgets and increase crime.  

Asked whether she supported eliminating cash bail entirely, Preckwinkle said, “I think that this is the direction in which I would want to move, yes.”

Preckwinkle pointed to Washington, D.C. as a model. The city eliminated cash bail in the 1990s, and served as county stakeholders’ inspiration when they embarked on reforms in 2013.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans began requiring court staff and judges in the fall of 2017 to ask about a defendant’s ability to pay their bail. Non-dangerous, low flight-risk defendants — as determined by an assessment tool — would be released from custody pending trial. Bail amounts would be set at an amount they could afford.

Adherence to that rule has varied by judge. As recently as February, the Tribune reported of the 5,736 inmates in Cook County Jail, 5,390 has yet to stand trial. Approximately 48 percent could either not afford their bail or did not have a place to live where they could be electronically monitored.

Preckwinkle still has close to two more years as the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, which was traditionally active in local campaigns but stayed silent on whether to retain judges that serve in county courts. That changed in the 2018 elections.

During the November election the party “took the position that not every judge deserved retention,” for the first time and joined criminal justice reform advocates to urge voters not to retain Judge Matthew Coghlan.

Coghlan was sued by two men he prosecuted for murder in the 1990s. Those convictions were later overturned, and the men say Coghlan worked with disgraced former Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara to concoct a false case against them. Coghlan was also accused of racially biased sentencing and wrongfully denying hearings.

Aside from ensuring diverse slates in upcoming elections, Preckwinkle said she expects the party to continue to hold judges’ feet to the fire during slating.   

“I think it’s really worthy of note that the Democratic Party took the position that we need to hold people on the bench accountable to being fair to all of the people who come before them in the courtroom, and I anticipate that that will be the case again in the next round, and there will be judges that we do not support for retention,” Preckwinkle said.

As Preckwinkle’s third term gets underway in earnest after her defeat in the mayoral election, officials at every level of government in Illinois are facing various allegations of wrongdoing, criminal investigations or charges — Gov. JB Pritzker, House Speaker Mike Madigan, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Ald. Ed Burke and Ald. Danny Solis and Ald. Patrick D. Thompson.

Preckwinkle paused for a long time after asking if the mounting scandals represented a crisis.  

“You’re listing people, some of whom have — let me back up,” Preckwinkle said. “You know, look, the first thing you should say is people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The fact that somebody makes an allegation against you doesn’t mean you’re guilty of the allegation.”

“While the litany of things that you just described is surely discouraging, unless and until it results in charges and convictions, it’s simply allegations.”

  • Southland struggles — Preckwinkle is also doubling down on efforts to lift the south suburbs, among the areas hit hardest by industrial flight. “We will continue to have a challenge in the Southland of overreliance on residential properties because of the absence of vigorous industrial and commercial sectors in many of these neighborhoods, many of these communities,” she said. A recent Crain’s analysis found Southland homeowners are charged property tax rates at double the rate western and north suburban homeowners face. Preckwinkle did not address questions about how assessment changes from Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office — which have seen industrial and commercial assessments rise by 82 percent in Elk Grove and 96 percent in New Trier — might hamper efforts to attract new businesses to the Southland. “My view is that the more equity we can inject into the system, the better off we are,” Preckwinkle said.
  • Three priorities for Springfield — Preckwinkle will be in Springfield May 7 and May 8 to meet with leaders. Preckwinkle said she will push for a capital bill that “invests not simply in roads in bridges,” but in facilities; a pension clean-up bill; and to ensure that the county gets a piece of the pie if recreational marijuana and sports betting are approved. “We need to look at the records of those who are in jail or have convictions for simple possession, if we’re going to legalize marijuana, we need to do something about those who are detained or incarcerated for drug offenses,” Preckwinkle said.
  • County census effort to begin in earnest this month — The county has set aside $2 million for community organizations to do outreach and communication ahead of the Census. That already-uphill climb could be made more difficult if the U.S. Supreme Court allows the Trump administration to include a citizenship question on 2020 forms, Preckwinkle said. Preckwinkle’s administration will release a request for proposals from community organizations to perform outreach within the next two weeks. The newly formed Complete Count Committee will also begin meeting this month. “We have to focus on growth and opportunity, not just downtown but in all of our neighborhoods, in all of our cities, towns, and villages,” Preckwinkle said. “When people believe there’s opportunity for themselves and their children, they’re more likely to stay.”