Bail Not Designed as Punishment

bail reformWhat is the purpose of bail? I ask because, aside from the Jussie Smollett spectacle, bail reform is the key issue in the race for Cook County State’s Attorney, a race featuring Kim Foxx, a leader in national bail reform, trying to fend of three challengers in this week’s democratic primary. It’s a question worth asking because poor journalism and bunch of anonymous trolls who run online political operations under the guise of news operations have muddied the issue.

From its inception bail was intended to serve as an incentive for offenders to show up to court, nothing more. Empirical research has shown just how useless bail is for its intended purposes in most cases because offenders more often than not show up for court even when they weren’t required to post bail.

Bail is not a form of punishment and it is not a way to keep poor people charge with minor offenses, regardless of their histories, in jail to languish for months waiting for an incredibly over-burdened court system to get around to hearing their case. The impact of this incarceration waiting for trial has proven to have an incredibly negative impact on the lives of offenders often increasing the likelihood offenders will be system involved in to the future.

This is not an endorsement of the bail reform. It is however a clarion call for the Chicago and Cook County justice system to fundamentally rethink how they release data so that they are living up to their responsibilities under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and stop weaponizing data to further their political needs while at the same time providing a disservice to the people they have sworn to serve. Empirical analysis about the impact of the reform can empower voters but only if the data is available to do that analysis.

The media in Chicago needs to think like academic researchers and do the research needed to really inform the public about the overall impact of the reform and stop focusing on individual cases that either support or distract from the reform. They also need to distinguish themselves from the online political trolls that are so proud of their work they refuse to identify themselves when they post something. If they are losing audience share to the trolls it is because they are failing to do the hard work necessary to provide the public the information they need to live their lives. 

The public needs to understand that some offenders who get out because of the reform, who previously would have been incarcerated, will in fact commit other crimes while their case is pending. The media and criminal justice officials need to be upfront about this fact in the very beginning and how this fact does in no way mean that bail reform is without merit.

The US has lived for decades with a system of incarceration that boasts recidivism rates over 50% and higher for people leaving prison after serving their sentences. So obviously the lock them all up plan that opponents of bail reform are advocating is not without its decades of failure.

Residents of Chicago and Cook County would be best served with more facts and less ideological yelling. This can only come about with a liberation of the data needed from justice agencies and a robust media providing all the required context in their reporting on these issues that drives the online political trolls back under their rock for which they came.

Author: Tracy Siska

Tracy Siska is the Founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Justice Project.

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