Illinois moves to permanently end all cash bail

The “bail reform” movement in Illinois isn’t going away any time soon. If anything, it’s only picking up steam. The efforts by Democrats to empty the jails received a big boost recently with the passage of a new bill designed to fully and permanently eliminate cash bail. Named the “Pretrial Fairness Act,” the Governor is expected to sign it into law. The new law would remove all cash bonds for suspects awaiting trial. That doesn’t mean that nobody would be locked up, as we’ll see in a moment, but the jails are certainly going to be considerably emptier when this goes into effect two years from now. (NBC News)

But the long-standing practice may come to an end as Illinois is expected to pass legislation that will fully end the use of money bond, making it the first state to explicitly and entirely end a system of wealth-based freedom that has not only disproportionately affected low-income populations but also communities of color. While other states have struggled to successfully implement similar bail reform measures, criminal justice advocates say Illinois may have gotten it right.

The Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act passed the state legislature last month and is expected to be signed into law by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in the coming weeks.

If you click through and read the NBC News article, you’ll see that they begin their coverage with a tale sure to tug on your heartstrings. They describe a 34-year-old husband and father who had just started a small business when he was arrested “on traffic charges” and ordered to post a bond of $10,000 to be released while awaiting trial. He’s unable to come up with the money, so he sits in jail for two months while his wife struggles, eventually losing both their new business and their home.

The first thing we should be asking is who the heck gets thrown in jail with that high of a level of bail for a “traffic charge.” There’s got to be more to the story than that, but a search of local news outlets didn’t turn up anything. Also, how is it that a family with the wherewithal to launch a small business was unable to qualify for a bond, usually only requiring them to put down ten percent of the total fee? Color me dubious.

Getting back to the details of the new law, defendants awaiting trial will be split into two classes. People will either be held while awaiting trial or they won’t. Presumably, the 300-page bill will specify what crimes will qualify for being jailed and which offenses will not. We can expect the list of crimes where suspects are released to be pretty lengthy, however.

What’s really being done here constitutes a change that will largely remove the discretion of judges when considering the danger a suspect poses to the community or how much of a flight risk they might be. There will be times when a person is picked up for a minor amount of marijuana but you might want to hold them if they have a laundry list of priors and violent crimes. Other people might do something more serious, but be likely to show up in court if there’s a significant financial penalty hanging over their head in the event they don’t.

Proponents of the measure are talking about a “wealth-based detention system,” where the wealthy go free and the poor are locked up. But the primary reason you see that effect is that the wealthy generally have a lot more to lose (by definition) and are probably going to show up in court with their attorneys. Decisions about pre-trial detention need to be made based on risk mitigation rather than some arbitrary case of choosing between column A and column B.

Well, at least Illinois residents won’t have to worry about crime rates going up with more suspects roaming the streets. Oh, wait. Just last week a study was released showing that bail reform in Chicago led to higher crime rates precisely as predicted. But don’t let a little thing like that deter you. I’m sure this is all going to work out swimmingly.