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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Illinois Votes To Stop Jailing People Who Can’t Afford Bail: ‘This Is Not A Just Or Equitable System’

The state Legislature approved the Pretrial Fairness Act, which will end money bond statewide, and other sweeping criminal justice reforms Wednesday.

Faith leaders gather at Cook County Jail to seek the release of detainees to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
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CHICAGO — Illinois will likely end its cash bond system after state legislators voted Wednesday to pass a package of sweeping criminal justice reforms.

The Pretrial Fairness Act aims to prevent people facing criminal charges, who are still presumed innocent, from being jailed because they cannot afford to pay bail. The bill, passed by the Illinois Legislature and pushed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, will now be sent to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk for approval.

The legislation eliminates cash bail as a standard for pretrial incarceration and will result in the presumption of release for pretrial criminal defendants, said the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago). Supporters said ending cash bail will help defendants with their defense and help their families and communities.

Judges will still be able to jail people they think to be a threat to the community.

“Being poor is not a crime, end of story,” Peters said. “Folks who have the means to cover their bail don’t spend a minute in jail, while others could be locked up for weeks or even months before their trial begins. This is not a just or equitable system.”

The legislation will also implement a statewide body camera requirement for police officers, enhance use-of-force training for police officers, and ban the use of chokeholds, among other reforms, according to the The Daily Line.

Despite strong opposition from law enforcement groups, who argued the reforms make it more difficult for them to do their jobs, the bill was approved by the Illinois Senate before 5 a.m. Wednesday, and the House later voted to pass it during the final hour of the lame-duck session, according to the Tribune.

The cash bail reform is a first step toward building a justice system where a criminal defendant’s risk to their community is what determines whether they are incarcerated before their day in court, rather than how much money they have, said State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago).

“If they’re not a risk to public, then they shouldn’t be in jail,” Ford said. “Now we have to look at the person and the crime to determine whether or not this person is a risk to their fellow peers. If he’s not, if she’s not, then there’s no need for bail.”

The legislation was supported by the Cook County’s top prosecutor, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

“Eliminating cash bail ends the practice of detaining non-violent offenders simply because they are poor while also preventing violent offenders from being released because they can afford bail,” Foxx said in a statement.

The elimination of money bond builds on the county’s 2017 reforms, which require judges to set bail at an amount defendants can afford, said Chief Judge Timothy Evans of the Cook County Circuit Court. If the Pretrial Fairness Act is signed into law, Evans expects cash bail to be phased out by 2023.

“We have been supporting the end of money bail for a long time,” Judge Evans said. “Money was never a good gauge as to who should be released on pretrial. The law is that there is a presumption of innocence when someone is charged.”

Being incarcerated before trial can “eviscerate your right to helping in your own defense,” said Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s legal clinic at Northwestern University. Pretrial detainment makes it more difficult to find witnesses and meet with defense attorneys, Van Brunt said, especially during the pandemic, when jail lockdowns have made attorney visits especially difficult.

“There’s so many consequences to pretrial detention,” Van Brunt said. “You’re losing your job. You’re losing your ability to care for kids. You’re losing the community’s support and your community is losing you.”

The MacArthur Justice Center has pursued several lawsuits to challenge the money bond system, including litigation seeking emergency release for detainees vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus outbreaks at the Cook County Jail.

“Talking about COVID, we’re putting people at mortal risk who are presumptively innocent, because we’ve decided they’re going to be held for something they haven’t been found guilty for,” Van Brunt said.

Ford expects a significant reduction in the jail population once the proposed law takes effect. Lawmakers and advocates must stay vigilant to make sure the elimination of cash bond doesn’t translate into judges detaining more people who would have otherwise been able to pay for their release, Ford said.

“Most crimes are nonviolent offenses, and so the proof will automatically be reflected in the jail population. And if we don’t see a reduction, then we know judges are not doing what they’re supposed to do,” Ford said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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