PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Trials and other criminal proceedings in Cook County have continued through pandemic

Released On 04/20/2021

Recent suggestions that the criminal courts have not held trials, or have been otherwise inactive, during the past 13 months of the pandemic are based on misinformation.

The Cook County Circuit Court has held hundreds of bench trials during the pandemic.  Criminal jury trials resumed last month, after numerous precautions and preparations by the Office of the Chief Judge to ensure the safety of both jurors and court personnel.

It should be noted that the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved before they go to trial. Nationally, 92% of felony cases are resolved through guilty pleas or dismissal of charges, while just 5% go to trial, according to the National Center for State Courts. In Cook County in 2019, of all cases that did go to trial, 10 percent went to a jury trial while the rest went to bench trials.

Between March 17, 2020 and March 5, 2021, the criminal courts authorized to conduct trials of felonies disposed of 7,897 cases after a finding of probable cause by the court or a grand jury indictment, which means that the cases were resolved through trial, a guilty plea, or dismissal of charges. In addition, the courts disposed of 9,767 domestic violence cases, and the remaining criminal courts disposed of 39,967 criminal cases, including felony cases resolved prior to a finding of probable cause and misdemeanor cases. A portion of the felony cases filed in these courts were transferred to felony courts after a finding of probable cause.

While the coronavirus pandemic has created a challenge for the operations of the Cook County Circuit Court, as it has for all parts of our society, the court has continued to administer justice through the use of innovation and technology. With 400 courtrooms equipped for Zoom teleconference hearings, the court hosted nearly 1.5 million hours of Zoom court sessions with more than 1.8 million participants between March 17, 2020, and March 11, 2021, in all divisions and districts. The court has not been idle, and is increasing access to justice as the community begins to re-open, with all divisions and districts preparing to resume jury trials as of May 3.

Bail reform, instituted by the Circuit Court of Cook County in 2017, is based on the constitutional principle that people should not be punished by imprisonment before they are tried, unless they pose a significant danger to the community. Looking at individual tragic cases in isolation may contribute to the speculation that releasing individuals before trial rather than incarcerating them -- whether by placing them on Electronic Monitoring (EM) or other forms of supervision -- means an increase in crime. But a speculation based on isolated cases is not the same as a reality based on a complete picture. A Loyola University study last November confirmed a previous internal court study that bail reform has kept hundreds out of jail, while not contributing to an increase in crime, and saved Cook County residents from having to post more than $31 million in bail in just one six-month period.

Regarding criticisms of judges releasing some individuals charged with crime to EM, judges are guided by looking at the criminal backgrounds of defendants before them. Only those individuals judged to pose a clear and present danger to society are kept in jail before trial. In determining whether to confine an individual before trial, or to set restrictions such as EM as a condition of their release, judges consider multiple factors, including the facts of the case, input from the defense and prosecution, and the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) tool. This helps to assess danger to the public by calculating the risk of failure to appear, risk of new criminal activity and risk of new violent criminal activity. During the pandemic, judges have also had to balance the risks of incarceration to the health of jail detainees, corrections staff, and the greater community, with more traditional public safety considerations. EM is used throughout the country as an alternative to incarceration pre-trial.

Once defendants are convicted of serious offenses by trial or through guilty pleas, most go to prison. For example, for weapons cases that did not involve murder and attempted murder but may have included armed robbery and aggravated battery with a firearm, more than 90% resulted in a conviction, either through guilty plea or jury or bench trial, according to a recent Circuit Court data analysis. Of these weapons offenses that involved a victim, almost 72% were sentenced to a term in prison, with an average sentence of 80 months.

 

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