People walk in and out of the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse on the Southwest Side, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
A courthouse worker raised her hands in celebration late Monday afternoon as Cook County finished its first day under Illinois’ historic law eliminating cash bail.
“We’re done. One day down,” she said, beaming. Then she quickly added, “Just all the rest of them to go.”
After a flurry of last-minute preparations, the hearings at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse were not substantially different from the ones under the old cash bail system.
Judges no longer ordered people to pay a bond to be released from jail, a system critics decried as inherently unfair and damaging to communities. Instead, judges were now faced with whether to simply detain someone until trial based on whether they were determined be a threat to the public or at risk of not returning to court.
Cook County is expected to be closely watched as the reforms are tested with real world cases, and the courtrooms were filled Monday with judges and lawyers observing the new proceedings unfold for the first time — at times chiming in to offer advice when difficult procedural questions arose.
“I appreciate everyone’s patience, we’re working out a lot of new processes,” said Judge Mary Marubio, who heads the court’s pretrial division.
She was working with a group of assistant public defenders to determine how an order placing someone on electronic monitoring on a new charge would be impacted by a separate case the person was facing.
Behind the scenes, courthouse personnel who could previously sleepwalk through initial hearings were operating in a slightly frenzied state, asking last-minute procedural questions of each other as they guided paperwork and defendants to their proper destinations.
Separate courtrooms were established to handle the initial flood of cases: one to set conditions for release and the other for hearings where prosecutors were seeking to detain someone.
Prosecutors filed petitions to detain eight people on Monday: four were granted, three were denied and one couldn’t be heard because the person, shot by police a day earlier, was still hospitalized.
Judge Marubio repeatedly warned defendants who would go home after their court appearance that violating the terms of their release — not appearing in court or picking up a new charge — could result in them spending the rest of their case in jail.
“I want you to understand that consequence,” she told one defendant sternly.
Many of those appearing in support of relatives facing charges said they hadn’t heard much about the bail reform.
In one case, Judge Charles Beach reviewed a bond that had been previously set for a man facing a charge of driving on a suspended license. He ordered the man released on the condition that he be in contact with the Pretrial Services Department.
His family said they were able to hire a private attorney after learning that his charge was not eligible for detention and he could be released without having to post the $2,000 bond.
“It was a big help,” a relative who attended the hearing said.
But in another case, a man facing a residential burglary charge but with no other criminal history was accused of violating his electronic monitoring.
Prosecutors asked for him to be detained, saying they believed he couldn’t be trusted to follow the court’s orders and may not return to court.
An assistant public defender for the man said his client left his home in order to visit a relative on a day his aunt died after a long illness.
“That is an extraordinary circumstance that could affect anyone’s thinking,” the assistant public defender argued, adding that the situation was “unlikely to repeat” and the man was supposed to start a new job next month as a flagger for a construction company.
But Judge Beach noted that when sheriff’s deputies approached the man, prosecutors said he ran away and blocked the door of an apartment with a refrigerator.
“Based on those factors I am going to detain you,” Beach told him.
Not everyone was satisfied with the new system — though whether the outcome would have been substantially different under the old system was difficult to tell.
A woman who said she was robbed by three other women last weekend said she was worried about her safety after a judge ordered all three released on Monday.
Prosecutors had only sought for one of the alleged attackers to be detained, but the judge determined electronic monitoring would be sufficient.
“If the judge was robbed and severely beaten, would she had let them go? Would another fellow judge had let them go?” she said outside the courtroom. “No they would have not.”
There were also moments of levity, cutting through the stress of a day of brand new rules and concerns about how closely they were being watched.
“That doesn’t really exist anymore,” Judge Beach said to chuckles when an attorney asked for a client to be released on a bond.
But during another hearing a short time later, Beach made a similar mistake when he referred to determining someone’s bond.
“That won’t be the first time nor the last time I make that mistake,” he said.