File Photo: The George N Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago in late March 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

LITTLE VILLAGE — Volunteers are watching criminal bond hearings at the Cook County Circuit Court in an attempt to ensure people aren’t sent to jail simply because they can’t afford bail.

The volunteers are being trained by the Coalition to End Money Bond. The effort is part of the group’s ongoing campaign to reduce the number of detainees sent to Cook County Jail and to release medically vulnerable and bail-eligible people from incarceration because of the high risk of coronavirus transmission behind bars.

The court-watching program is designed to hold judges accountable to their decisions on setting bond, which can be a matter of life and death for some defendants, said the group’s executive director, Sharlyn Grace. The coalition plans to publicize the results, Bond Fund spokesman Matt McLoughlin said.

“The decisions being made by Cook County judges in bond court could determine whether or not someone survives this pandemic,” Grace said. “It is more important than ever that judges be required to follow the law and respect the rights of accused people.”

Cook County Jail was at one point home to the largest single cluster of COVID-19 infections in the country, though Sheriff Tom Dart said the high number of positive cases was due to his office’s rigorous testing practices.

Hundreds of detainees have become infected with COVID-19. Seven have died while being treated at local hospitals. Nearly 100 were still ill as of May 20, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office.

About 60 correctional officers also tested positive as of May 20. Another 337 Sheriff’s Office employees were previously infected with the disease but have recovered and returned to work. Two correctional officers have also died from complications related to COVID-19, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

More than 4,000 people are currently incarcerated at the jail. But based on bond records from the sheriff’s Inmate Locator, leaders of the Chicago Community Bond Fund said at least 1,400 of those currently behind bars have already been cleared for release conditional on posting bail.

That suggests those detainees could be remaining behind bars because they cannot afford to post bail, Bond Fund leaders say.

Since the pandemic hit Chicago, the Sheriff’s Office has collaborated with the Cook County State’s Attorney, the public defender’s office, and the courts to reduce the jail population so detainees could safely social distance outside the jail.

The number of those jailed has dropped about 25 percent in recent months thanks to emergency bond review hearings that have allowed some bail-eligible detainees to be released.

But judges have been ordering many detainees to use electronic monitoring devices as a condition for release at the emergency hearings. For some, electronic monitoring would not be required for release if the detainees could afford bond.

“It just seems like judges are handing out [electronic monitoring] as a condition way too frequently,” McLoughlin said.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, overuse of those conditional releases by the courts has resulted in a shortage in electronic monitoring devices.

“Any new [electronic monitoring] orders will result in defendants being held at the jail — a result that threatens to undo the successes we have achieved in slowing the spread of the virus,” the Sheriff’s office said in a statement earlier in May.

Now advocates are hoping the court-watching program will stop people awaiting trail from being forced to wear an ankle monitor or go to jail because of unaffordable bond.

“The size of someone’s bank account should never determine whether or not they’re put in a cage, but, in this moment, the stakes are even higher,” said April Friendly, a community organizer with The People’s Lobby.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans ordered bond proceedings be conducted virtually to prevent exposure to COVID-19 at the courthouse. Bond hearings are streamed live through the Cook County Courts site.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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