Bail reform efforts that seek to shrink jail populations and scale back the use of cash bail have long been the subject of intense discourse. Cook County, which encompasses the broader Chicago area, is no stranger to this: Both law enforcement and political leaders have expressed concerns with the county’s 2017 bail reforms, while court officials have heralded it a resounding success. Two recent academic analyses by scholars at the University of Utah and Loyola University Chicago may add some substance to this debate.
Initiated by an order from the Chief Judge of Cook County’s Circuit Court, these bail reforms created a new framework: A judge must now decide if an individual should be detained or released first. If a judge decides an individual should be released, there is a presumption that they would be released without having to pay cash bail. If cash bail is deemed necessary, the bail amount is to be set in line with what the defendant could reasonably afford.
The Utah study is best interpreted as a scholarly critique of an earlier circuit court analysis of the reforms. The latter argued that bail reform measures reduced the jail population and the number of people ordered to pay cash bail as a condition of release without impacting violent crime.
The Utah scholars rightly point out several methodological flaws in this analysis. For one, the analysis failed to control for confounding variables that also could impact criminal activity, such as changes in unemployment, seasonal temperature, and historical arrest rates. Moreover, the follow-up period used to track pretrial releases post-reform was shorter than the time period used for the pre-reform comparison group, likely biasing the results.
Additionally, the Utah scholars critiqued the use of a stable “community safety rate”––aka the percentage of individuals released who remained charge-free––as the metric for arguing crime did not increase following bail reform. Even if the community safety rate remained the same, an increase in the total number of people released pretrial would result in a subsequent increase in the total number of crimes committed by pretrial releases. Put simply, if two thousand people were released prior to reform and three thousand were released post-reform, a stable community safety rate of 95 percent would still result in an additional 50 charges post-reform.
The Utah study attempted to correct for the second and third of these perceived flaws by adjusting the follow-up period used for the post-reform group to match the pre-reform group’s period. At the same time, they used publicized quarterly recidivism data to estimate how this change would impact the total number of new charges and violent crime charges among pretrial releases post-reform. Based on their new estimates, Cook County’s bail reform actually led to a 45 percent increase in new charges and a 33 percent increase in new violent charges among pretrial releases. Yet, while an important check on earlier figures, the Utah study’s failure to control for the confounding variables it identified as well as its inability to actually track individual and charge-level outcomes in the new follow-up time period render these findings inconclusive.
The Loyola study more fully addresses these concerns by accessing the jail and court data to establish even follow-up periods and by controlling for a host of individual and case level variables before creating two matched pre- and post-reform comparison groups. This analysis found that bail reform was associated with a small, statistically significant increase in the odds of an individual being released pretrial, with an estimated 500 additional people released following reforms. Yet it found no statistically significant difference in the odds of a released individual being charged with a new misdemeanor or felony offense or violent crime pre- or post-reform.
While the small increase in the total number of individuals released pretrial suggests a small uptick in total new charges among pretrial releases given stable new crime and new violent crime rates, the authors’ analysis of police crime data suggests this had an insignificant impact on crime trends in Chicago.
Meanwhile, the Loyola scholars found that defendants—individuals presumed innocent in the eyes of the law—were more likely to be released post-reform without having to pay cash bail and that the average cash bail amounts among those ordered to pay dropped, resulting in an estimated $31.4 million in savings to defendants and their families.
Taking both of these studies into consideration, one is left with a few important conclusions. Cook County’s bail reform has not been the cause of a significant uptick in crime in Chicago. It has, however, recalibrated the justice system to ensure that poor individuals who can’t afford bail can still gain their freedom as they await trial. And it has ensured that cash bail is not used as a proxy for detention. This is certainly a victory both for the presumption of innocence and for procedural justice.