In Cook County, Illinois as it is in most counties across the country, when a person is arrested, they are delivered to the custody of the sheriff of that county. In metropolitan areas, police patrol impoverished regions twice as much as wealthier areas. This makes police contact and arrests twice as likely to happen in these areas. While in the sheriff’s custody, a judge or magistrate issues a bond; a bail amount to be paid for this individual to regain his freedom during court proceedings. The defendant remains in the custody of the sheriff until that amount is paid or the final disposition of the case. Currently county jails are overcrowded with detainees awaiting trial, over 2/3 of these defendants are non-violent and have proven no risk of flight.
Any person could find themselves in this situation. All it takes is for an allegation to be made to the authorities, regardless of any other facts regarding the allegation. Our constitution clearly regards our citizens as innocent until proven guilty, yet across the country; individuals are warehoused in facilities that surely undermine the intentions of our great constitution. If we are to adhere to the constitution, why are innocent but accused being snatched from homes, jobs, families & communities to be housed in deplorable conditions, conditions far worse than those of their convicted counterparts?
Individuals held in pre-trial detention lack not only the resources to provide bail release; they often lack funds necessary for adequate defense. This puts them at the mercy of the system that incarcerated them. Utilizing the public defender’s office, an office that works closely with the state’s attorney’s office, they are offered plea agreements with freedom as the bait. Having been beaten down by weeks of incarceration, regardless of innocence or guilt and as a way of attempting to preserve some semblance of a family structure, they accept the agreement. The agreement normally guarantees that for their plea of guilty, they would receive probation or supervision. Other detainees are released after prolonged periods of incarceration due to lack of evidence, case dismissal or finding of not guilty. Even in these situations, the effects on family, employment, and community of being incarcerated for 30-90 days or longer are devastating and often irreversible.
A complete overhaul of our judicial system is a long past due necessity. Changing the way streets are patrolled and what defendants are arrested for would begin the process. Ticketing non-violent infractions of the law and issuing a court date would free up space for more violent offenders. This would loosen up millions of tax dollars spent annually on housing non-violent detainees awaiting trial. The Bureau of Prisons uses a point system when determining the security level of the facility in which an inmate should be detained. Pre-trial services could adopt a similar strategy when evaluating the flight risk of detainees.
Accepting the fact there there is a need for change in our current judicial system is paramount. There is not one department that is exempt as the total system is flawed. Change must be initiated by the judges elected to interpret the law. Judges are the only officers of the court that have the power, influence, and respect to act as catalysts for change. Communities and constituents empower judges, therefore they too must be at the forefront to hold accountable those that abuse the system. Only with judicial and constituent influence can we ever begin to repair a system utterly littered with such potentially devastating flaws.