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As end to cash bail approaches in Illinois, Cook County judge explains how she decides defendants’ bonds

CHICAGO (CBS) — The battle over no-cash bail is heating up in Illinois. There are lawsuits and fiercely divided opinions on the law that could allow most people charged with a crime to remain free until their trial.

Bond court judges are left in the middle. CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov talked to one Cook County judge about how she decides who gets out and who doesn’t.

Seven days a week, for several hours a day, Courtroom 100 inside the Leighton Criminal Courts Building is filled with lawyers, computer monitors with defendants on Zoom, their relatives, and judges. Associate Cook County Judge Maryam Ahmad is one of them.

“I’m not a robot, and I don’t preside like a robot, and I have a real personality, and I have real concerns and real interests, and I bring all of that into the courtroom with me,” she said.

Judge Ahmad has been a bond court judge for almost a year. She’s one of seven bond court judges in Cook County.

“Because I reside in the community, and because young people are really important to me, and because the city is so important, I try to be thorough, I try to be compassionate,” she said.

That compassion caught the attention of a CBS 2 colleague while listening to cases in bond court one day.

“What motivates me is my love for the city. What motivates me is public safety,” Ahmad said.

This bond court is not for ultra-violent offenders, like accused murderers. Defendants who appear in Courtroom 100 are usually facing weapons, drug, and battery charges. The bond Ahmad sets for each defendant must fall within Illinois bail guidelines.

“Each case is so different,” Ahmad said.

But she also has discretion. That’s when she laser-focuses on the specifics of the case, and the defendant’s background.

“Where the person lives. Their ties to community. Whether they reside in Illinois, or reside somewhere else. Whether they work. Whether they have a family, they are supporting that family. How long they’ve worked. Are they in school? ” she said. “There’s no formula. A lot of people wonder, are you looking at a sheet in the back, and is that how you’re making these decisions? No,” Ahmad said.

In a recent hearing, Ahmad told one young defendant, “You’re at a crossroads, young man. … You have the potential to do better.” She allowed a 19-year-old defendant facing a weapons charge, with no prior record, to take some time to compose himself after he told her he was scared. And she always makes sure family members in court stand in front of the virtual camera so their relative charges facing can see them.

“I try to respond to the people who are coming before me like I would the people on my street, because sometimes people from my street are in the courthouse, and I would want someone wearing that black robe to be compassionate to them, or to me or my family,” she said.

What are her thoughts on criticism that, right now, the court system isn’t doing enough to protect people.

“We’re all working with the system that we’ve been given, and it’s one that many of us work every day to try to improve,” she said.

What the judge won’t talk about is the future of bond court come Jan. 1, 2023, when a provision of the so-called “SAFE-T Act” that eliminates cash bail in Illinois is set to go into effect.

That controversial measure is the subject of lawsuits by several state’s attorneys in Illinois. Despite the law’s uncertain future, Ahmad remains committed to the bench.

“I know public safety is important to everybody in our city, and I want to be a part of the solution,” she said.

Ahmad stresses judges take an oath to follow the law. So when it comes to her personal opinion on the move to no-cash bail, she says it doesn’t matter.

Dana Kozlov

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