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Misplaced Benevolence

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eye on the news

Misplaced Benevolence

In Chicago and elsewhere, the bail-reform movement is putting the public at risk. May 4, 2020
Public safety
Politics and law

Two prominent Chicago criminal-justice advocacy groups—The Bail Project and the Chicago Community Bond Fund—work to get criminal defendants out of jail, irrespective of the threats those offenders pose to society. A recent report by the Chicago Tribune reveals that these organizations’ pursuit of “social justice” denies Chicagoans the valuable benefits associated with pretrial detention. Proactively posting bond for Chicago’s violent repeat offenders has resulted in serious and avoidable new crimes.

The costs of this “decarceration” project have been borne disproportionately by those living in the Windy City’s low-income, high-crime neighborhoods, some of which have homicide rates rivaling the most violent places on earth. The Tribune describes the case of 34-year-old Christopher Stewart, a “four-time felon” facing charges for illegal handgun possession. Stewart was the subject of an order of protection filed by an ex-girlfriend, who claimed that he had “shot a pistol into the ground at her 6-year-old son’s birthday party and threatened to kill her.” The Bail Project secured Stewart’s release. Four weeks later, reports the Tribune, “Stewart was charged with attempted murder after he allegedly set fire to the ex-girlfriend’s apartment while she was inside.” The Tribune reporters—among them, a Pulitzer Prize winner and multiple-time Pulitzer finalist, David Jackson—documented 162 individuals charged with felonies who have been bailed out by the advocacy groups since February 2017. More than one in five were subsequently charged with new offenses.

This should not surprise anyone who’s been following the debate about so-called mass incarceration. Chicago, like many other cities around the United States, is engaged in a policy experiment with bail reform. Such reform initiatives seek, to varying degrees, to reduce reliance on monetary pretrial-release conditions like cash bail, which has resulted in the pretrial release of defendants who might otherwise have been held in detention. The impact these initiatives can have on crime is shocking. One study, by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford Universities, found that pretrial release increases the likelihood of rearrest prior to case disposition by more than 37 percent—and increased the likelihood of a defendant failing to appear in court by 124 percent.

New York is likewise experimenting, and the city, too, has seen a sharp uptick in crime attributed to its recently enacted bail reform, which, after just four months, was partially (if insufficiently) rolled back by new legislation. In 2018, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights announced that it would bail out every jailed woman and minor in New York City. The charitable organization suspended its efforts after high-profile reporting about the release of violent criminals who went on to reoffend and skip court dates.

Unfortunately, news of the failure of mass bailouts in New York didn’t make it to Chicago. Assessing the city’s bail-reform initiative, University of Utah professors Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles found that “after more generous release procedures were put in place, the number of released defendants charged with committing new crimes increased by 45 percent.” Even more worrisome, they continued, “the number of pretrial releasees charged with committing new violent crimes increased by an estimated 33 percent.” The study was published in response to a more optimistic assessment of Chicago’s bail reform published by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans. His analysis, as documented by the Tribune’s Jackson, Todd Lighty, and Gary Marx, was flawed in its design, leading many to believe that the reform had improved Chicago’s crime picture.

Organizations like The Bail Project and the Chicago Community Bond Fund may mean well, but facts impinge on even the best intentions. The reality of stubborn criminality and recidivism is illustrated by the Tribune’s reporting, as well as by the studies documenting the incapacitation benefits of pretrial detention. It’s hard to see how these organizations are being charitable in pushing forward with their missions without doing more to mitigate the costs that these efforts impose.

Chicago’s policymakers deserve the blame here. City policy determines eligibility for pretrial release. In an ideal world, the judiciary, along with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx—an advocate for “restorative justice”—would make better use of the government’s authority to detain dangerous defendants on grounds of public safety. But since this is not an ideal world, we must also ask more of organizations like the bail funds. It’s easy to condemn them for helping repeat offenders—whom these groups often regard as victims—get back on the streets. Perhaps a more constructive approach would be to ask them to consider the plight of other victims—the law-abiding residents of vulnerable communities.

Photo: Sandra_Koz/iStock

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