One Chicago Judge’s Bond Decision Could Be a Model for a More Just Pretrial System

On Friday, June 22, Judge William H. Hooks ordered that Jackie Wilson be released from Cook County Jail without any conditions, including having to pay a monetary bond. Wilson is now free for the first time in more than 36 years, pending a new trial.

Wilson was convicted of the 1982 murder of a Chicago police officer in 1992. That conviction was largely based on a false confession Wilson gave after being tortured by disgraced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his subordinates. Judge Hooks vacated Wilson’s conviction on June 14 based on the evidence of police torture, and he will now have a third trial that excludes the coerced confession.

Judge Hooks’s decision to release Wilson on a $10,000 I-Bond (a personal recognizance bond requiring no payment of money upfront) provides an example for all Cook County judges, and for judges across the US. Despite the serious nature of the charges — murder — Judge Hooks correctly identified Wilson’s right to a presumption of pretrial release and placed the burden on the state to overcome that constitutionally protected right, a burden that Hooks found the state had “utterly failed” to meet. Judge Hooks was also simply adhering to Illinois and federal laws when he did not require Wilson to post a monetary bond to gain his freedom.

Yet, Judge Hooks’s decision stands out as somehow unusual. Too often, Cook County judges continue to ignore the presumption of pretrial release by ordering legally innocent people to pay unaffordable money bonds that result in their incarceration. In addition, judges routinely fail to carefully consider the strength of the evidence against a person when making bail decisions. Judges in Illinois have the ability to deny someone facing serious felony charges pretrial release if the state offers sufficient evidence that they will flee or are a threat to public safety. Instead of holding these transparent and easily reviewable detention hearings in all cases, Cook County judges routinely choose, rather, to hedge their bets and set arbitrarily high monetary bonds. This unconstitutional practice results in the pretrial incarceration of only those who lack access to money, and it is currently being litigated in a class-action lawsuit, Robinson v. Martin.

In September 2017, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans issued “General Order 18.8A,” which states that no one should be incarcerated pretrial in Cook County Jail because they are unable to pay a money bond. A group of community and policy organizations organized under the Coalition to End Money Bond monitored the implementation of the order and found that while conditions have improved in Cook County’s central bond court, it still has a long way to go. The number of people in Cook County Jail dropped by more than 1,500 people from September to December of last year, but that decline has stagnated because judges across the county still routinely set money bonds above what people can pay. More than 2,000 people remain in jail today for the simple reason that they can’t afford to pay bond — nine months after the order took effect. This reduction and the subsequent stagnation can be attributed to the fact that most criminal court judges (where trials take place) are ignoring Judge Evans’s order. When the order was implemented, Judge Evans switched the six judges in Cook County’s central bond court to try and ensure the order was largely followed. Even among the judges in central bond court, however, there is a wide variance in how the order is being implemented.

Judge Hooks’s bond decision in Jackie Wilson’s case is significant because it represents the careful consideration required before someone’s liberty is taken away, and it further held the state to its burden of proof. Rather than looking at simply the type of charge a prosecutor levied, Judge Hooks looked at Wilson’s individual circumstances and gave proper consideration to the presumption of pretrial release. It is only in high-profile cases like Wilson’s, which put a media spotlight on the judge, that a person’s pretrial right to freedom is more likely to be honored. This careful, well-documented consideration about whether to take away a person’s freedom pretrial should be the norm and not an exception typically only offered to people of wealth or power, such as Harvey Weinstein or Paul Manafort.

Across the United States, approximately 450,000 people are currently incarcerated pretrial. Ninety percent of people incarcerated pretrial are in jail only because they cannot afford to pay a money bail. Each and every one of these individuals is deserving of the same careful deliberation Jackie Wilson received. A person should not have had to prove they were tortured by police in order to enjoy their fundamental right to pretrial freedom, and it certainly should not be a privilege reserved only for the Harvey Weinsteins and Paul Manaforts of the world.

Judges across the country should follow Judge Hooks’s lead and respect the presumption of innocence by giving people their right to release, whether that is through an affordable money bond or an I-Bond. If Cook County judges can at least be brave enough to do that, they could lead the rest of the country in creating a more just pretrial system.