In the Spotlight: Redesigning Chicago Bond Court

After a person is arrested, bond court is their first stop in the judicial system. Here a judge will decide—in as little as 37 seconds—whether the person will commit a new crime or fail to return to court if granted bail. Even if they are granted freedom, the amount of cash bond required may mean that they stay in jail, sometimes for months.
Nearly three-fourths of the inmates in Cook County Jail are pretrial detainees accused of nonviolent crimes who either were not granted bond or could not afford it. While detained, they are liable to lose jobs, become expelled from school, and otherwise miss out on life-all while being presumed innocent. It’s a problem for taxpayers, too. It costs $143/day to house a detainee, with a total cost of over $385 million per year just for Cook County.

Reformers are working on solving these issues through design thinking and technology.

Working pro bono, Cannon Design looked at the physical layout of a Cook County courtroom and found many ways to improve it. The courtroom was originally designed for jury trials and the jury box was being used to hold defendants awaiting hearings. The judge’s bench was placed at an angle that made it hard for family and friends in the audience to hear what was happening. The only pathway was in the center of the courtroom which frequently interrupted proceedings.

The new design places the judge’s bench at the center of the room and allows him or her to face the defendant. This also allows the audience to better understand what it happening. Defendants no longer wait their turn in the presence of the judge. The traffic flow has been altered so that it no longer disturbs the proceedings. Finally, the design firm made large infographic signs that explain what is happening in the court.

Technological tools are also changing the processes of the court. Originally the defendant met with pretrial attorneys who assessed the defendant based on their residence, employment, drug use, and arrest history. Depending on the answers, the attorney would create a recommendation as to bail. It has been shown that these factors unfairly penalize poor and minority individuals.
The Public Safety Assessment (PSA), funded through a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, has replaced that process. The PSA is a computerized scoring system that was developed after studying data from over 1.5 million case records. It has been shown to be both race and gender neutral. It doesn’t replace the role of the judge, but provides another decision making tool. Since its implementation, the number of defendants released on their own recognizance has increased.

In the Spotlight: ABA Free Legal Answers

Buck Lewis sat in a hearing in a small East Tennessee town. As Tennessee Bar President, he’d heard the same testimony time and again: Low-income families had to travel long distances to find a lawyer, and working families couldn’t make legal aid office hours. As he emailed his clients back in Memphis between testimony, it dawned on him: Why can’t we advise low-income clients this way?

Buck envisioned a virtual pro bono clinic. The model was simple yet elegant: Qualifying clients post civil legal questions to a website. Volunteer attorneys select questions and provide legal advice. Client and counsel alike can log in anytime, anywhere.

Working with the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, and using software developed by his firm, Baker Donelson, Buck launched Online Tennessee Justice (OTJ) in 2009. Today, volunteer attorneys have answered over 13,000 legal questions through OTJ.

Why can’t we advise low income clients this way?

Seeing potential for expansion, Buck turned to the ABA Pro Bono and Public Service Committee. Soon after, ABA Free Legal Answers was born.

ABA Free Legal Answers aims to take Buck’s model nationwide. Already available in 20 states, ABA Free Legal Answers will reach more than 40 states by the end of 2017. In each state, the ABA partners with bar associations, legal aid agencies, or access to justice commissions, which recruit clients and volunteer attorneys. Since its launch several months ago, the site has served nearly 2,000 clients.

ABA Free Legal Answers combines three of our favorite things: collaboration, technology, and access to justice. We’re excited to see this project expand. If you have questions about the project or would like to volunteer, go to ABA Free Legal Answers or email You can contact Buck directly at