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

In response to a WhoWhatWhy Freedom of Information Act request, Chicago officials admitted that many teens who are unable to make bail sit in the city’s jails, sometimes for years, before their cases go to trial.

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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