By Bob Uphues
In December, Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel put on some civilian clothes and drove over to the Maybrook courthouse to observe bond court.
Earlier in the year, Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Tim Evans had ordered county judges to assess the risk of a defendant posing a public safety threat and/or the defendant's likelihood of skipping bail.
Once that assessment was made, judges were instructed to set bonds at an amount that would ensure the defendant continued to appear in court while at the same time keeping people out of jail for extended periods of time just because they couldn't afford to post bail.
Weitzel in a recent statement called the new policy "laughable." But a spokesman for Judge Evans defended the policy, providing figures that indicate about 90 percent of those released on bail or electronic monitoring show up for their future hearing dates and that more than 93 percent have not been re-arrested.
On the day he went to observe bond court at Maybrook, Weitzel said that 26 of 27 people appearing before the judge were released from custody, many of them on personal recognizance bonds or bonds set low enough that they could be paid immediately.
"In those cases, the judge on several instances leaned over the bench and asked the defendant or his family members in the courtroom how much bond they could post immediately," Weitzel wrote in an email to the Landmark. "If a defendant said $100, then bond was set at $1,000, 10 percent."
On Dec. 23, a day after news broke that the number of inmates at Cook County Jail had fallen to the lowest it had been in recent memory – below 5,900 – Weitzel sent out a press release blasting the new bail order and calling on county officials to provide evidence that those released on low bonds or electronic monitoring aren't going out and committing more crimes.
"Riverside, along with other jurisdictions, is arresting more individuals who are on electronic monitoring than ever before, which would indicate the system is not working," Weitzel wrote.
Referring the proposed layoffs of hundreds of sheriff's office and court employees to plug a Cook County budget shortfall (the court layoffs have been blocked temporarily), Weitzel said the bond policy was based on the cost of running the jail and politics.
"To simply put people on recognizance bonds or electronic monitoring to empty the jails is strictly a financial decision," Weitzel said. "The main consideration should be the administration of criminal justice, not someone's political agenda."
Weitzel also warned that police morale was at risk by judges allowing those charged with crimes to get out of jail so easily. Police officers arresting repeat offenders so often, he said, would become "jaded," said Weitzel.
"Once police officers feel that there is no method for offenders being held responsible for their actions, and that includes setting proper bonds, police officers' self-initiated activity will plummet, and crime will rise exponentially," Weitzel said.
But Pat Milhizer, communications director for Chief Judge Tim Evans, rebutted Weitzel's claims that those released on electronic monitoring are committing crimes while awaiting trial.
According to Milhizer, of the 258 people charged with felonies and released on bond between the day the order was implemented, Sept. 18, 2017, and Nov. 30, a total of 240 – 93 percent -- were not re-arrested.
Of the 18 who were re-arrested, nine were charged with violating the terms of their electronic monitoring. Only one of those offenders was charged with a crime against another person, battery.
Further, Milhizer said, no felony defendants released on electronic monitoring since Sept. 18 in the Fourth District of Cook County Circuit Court, which includes Riverside, have been charged with new crimes.
"Overall, of the 2,027 felony defendants who secured pretrial release from custody from September 18, 2017 through November 15, 2017, 89.8 percent appeared for all their scheduled court dates, and 93.5 percent were not re-arrested by November 30, 2017," Milhizer said.