Broke Teens Rot in Chicago Jails for Years Awaiting Trials

Bail is often set so high—for even the most minor charges—that young people languish in prison without trial, unable to pay. Photo credit: Still Burning / Flickr
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WhoWhatWhy has discovered that scores of young people have been denied their freedom—and their Constitutional right to a “speedy and public trial”—while being held in Chicago jails, some of them for years.

A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that dozens of detainees who were under the age of 18 when they were booked have been incarcerated for more than two years—simply because they couldn’t post bail while awaiting trial. Thirty one juveniles have been held for at least two years and another 33 have been awaiting their trial in jail for more than a year. Twelve have been in detention for three years or more.

The findings are part of a WhoWhatWhy investigation into the treatment of teenagers who are sitting in the nation’s jails because they cannot afford bail. The probe was triggered by the suicide of Kalief Browder.

The story of Kalief Browder—a 16 year-old who was imprisoned for three years after being unable to come up with thousands of dollars in bail after allegedly stealing a $40 backpack—cast a harsh light on New York’s grievously flawed bail system.

While New York City announced this month that it would no longer require bail for suspects accused of low-level or non-violent crimes, this revamp doesn’t go in effect until next year, likely leaving many minors to languish in prison while awaiting trial.

Worse, other cities continue to operate similarly flawed justice systems whose excesses have gone largely unscrutinized, until now.

Chicago is one of those cities, as revealed by a WhoWhatWhy Freedom of Information request. While Chicago’s Cook County Sheriff’s Office does not collect data on specifically why such detainees remain in jail, a follow-up with a Sheriff’s Office official confirmed that “it is fair to assume that individuals in the jail who remain in custody despite being given a cash bond are unable to afford to post the required amount.”

The data from Chicago suggest that Kalief Browder’s case is not a tragic anomaly but an indicator of a larger, perhaps nationwide pattern. While we do not have information on the alleged crimes of the Cook County Jail detainees, we do know that they all received a set bail, and that bail is only set for individuals who are not considered a significant danger to the community.

We are continuing to investigate how Chicago’s juvenile justice system compares to New York’s. WhoWhatWhy has submitted a Freedom of Information request and is still awaiting a response from Laura Mello, the Freedom of Information Law Officer for the Department of Corrections, City of New York.

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17 responses to “Broke Teens Rot in Chicago Jails for Years Awaiting Trials”

  1. David Cameron says:

    This country is going to hell. It appears that the very few has already dumbed down majority of the society. You can see this by people not caring about what is going on around them. Hopefully people can wake up from ignorance and fight the current system that controls us.

    Another sad thing about this detainment of juveniles is that the private prison industry make billions off of us tax payers to house these individuals. GEO Group, CCA and others have made billions by legislating Congress to house immigrants, but also American citizens by contracting with local counties to house inmates. This is pure wrong and immoral.

  2. From Our Facebook Page says:

    (Comment by reader Jerahme Cronin) Use to be that Excessive Bail was considered unconstitutional and illegal, right along with debtors prison, but they still incarcerate people for inability to pay their legal financial obligations.

  3. From Our Facebook Page says:

    (Comment by reader Deirdre Jones) It’s been going on for years, not only in Chicago all over. Please keep investigating.

  4. From Our Facebook Page says:

    (Comment by reader Judith Harlan) Complete investigation and charges for judges who should be smart enough to know they have created an unemployable underclass …they then punish for not having a job. What is the average IQ of judges?

  5. From Our Facebook Page says:

    (Comment by reader Sue Grandt) Please keep investigating and thank you for trying to do something. Such a waste of resources, especially in Chicago.

  6. Bob Dinitto says:

    Chicago seems to have their own special way of doing things:

  7. Chris Herz says:

    Land of the prisoners, home of the chickensh@t.

  8. brandall715 says:

    Thank Mr Lopez for shedding some light on this.

  9. artemis6 says:

    LAND OF THE FREE huh. Maybe not….

  10. Elim says:

    What happened to the right to a speedy trial?

    • NeonDisease says:

      What happened to “innocent until proven guilty”?

      Why can you be deprived of your freedom for weeks/months/years without being convicted of anything?

    • tratiorseverywhere says:

      What happened to the second amendment?

      Who would willingly let some other human(not a higher power) force them into a cage like a dog, full well knowing how you will be treated by the guards and system. There putting rat poison into there food for godsakes!

      Another note. How can the hundreds of thousands of inmates just sit around anal raping and playing cards full well knowing there numbers far out number the guards. Every jail/prison could riot and take total control of said jail/prison.

      Another note. How can the american people sit around watching there TV programs while there brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grandparents, children are being beaten, murdered, stolen by the police, goverment. How can you sit idlely by as your fellow man is being treated worse then the dogs at an animal shelter?

      What happened to the american people and our old motto. Give me liberty or give me death!

    • Non Christian says:

      When they offer you a public defender the first thing they have you do is sign away your right to a speedy trial. They do this in every county in the united States for all inmates who cannot afford a lawyer.

    • Elim says:

      What happens if they don’t sign away that right? It can’t be NO public defender. Could it?

    • Jas says:

      It sure can, I know people who were told if you want a lawyer you have to bring your own. No public defender even offered, in a potential jail sentence trial. The prisons are private for profit, many states have to sign contracts guaranteeing 90% capacity and the judges get legal kickbacks. Total police state already.

    • Chaos2Night says:

      And the first thing an ethical public defender should do when assigned to the client is have the client rescind/renounce the waiver. A class action federal law suit needs to be filed.

  11. ra wo says:

    If Obama were showing any balls he’d call his buddy Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and tell him to let the kids go. He runs that town.

    Someone already started a White House Petition:

    Some handy numbers and emails:

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel: Phone – 312.744.5000
    Emmanuel Contact form:
    Emmanuel Facebook page:

    CBS News Chicago:
    Editor at Chicago Tribune:

  12. NanaS says:

    never felt as though jail was a deterent to crime….many kids stealing a darn back back ! Learn from others how to move on to bigger crimes. With all that some of these kids have working against themi it is no wonder, our jails are busting at the seems. Middle class families can no longer pay for simple items afforded by criminals.
    I do not care for Obama, but he is showing some real balls right now. How about:
    Jobs for teens
    Treatment instead of jail for mentally ill and addiction ( which stems from self- treatment )
    Open the prison doors, for non violent offenders, offer rehabilitation, treatment, or job training for re offenders who feel so hopeless after years of I humane treatment being caged like animals
    It does not take a rockecientist, as the saying goes , Maybe common sense. Our corrections system allows crime to fester…