Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois signed a piece of landmark legislation to reform the state’s criminal justice system on Monday, putting an end to the practice of cash bail that disproportionately affects people living in poverty and communities of color.
According to a statement from the governor’s office, House Bill 3653 expands safety, fairness, and justice by transforming the state's criminal justice system and enacting statewide police reforms. It includes investing in officer training, requiring the use of body-worn cameras by police departments statewide, diverting low-level drug crimes into substance use programs and treatments, and ending prison gerrymandering.
"This legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state, and our nation and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness, and true justice," Pritzker said.
Cash bail is used as a guarantee that a defendant will return for their trial, otherwise the government will keep the money. After someone is arrested for a crime, they must come up with the money to post bail so that they can be released.
The practice of cash bail has long been used to trap lower-income people in the criminal justice system when they cannot afford to pay. Those who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime make up more than 70% of the US jail population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and most of them cannot afford their bail. These people await trial, sometimes for years, and may remain in jail without being convicted of the crime of which they are accused.
For this reason, many view cash bail as a way to criminalize poverty.
This criminal justice package that I signed today helps make Illinoisans safer. We're advance our values in the law, because of the passion and push of the @IllinoisLBC, activists, and residents intent on leaving a better Illinois for all our children. pic.twitter.com/VX1d9ObNJD— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) February 22, 2021
Organizations like the Vera Institute of Justice, the Bail Project, and the Brennan Center for Justice have advocated for the elimination of cash bail because of the negative effects pretrial detention has on a defendant’s case and mental well-being, as well as the cycle of poverty that cash bail sustains.
The median felony bail bond amount is $10,000, or the equivalent of eight months' income for the average pretrial detainee. Cash bail also harms communities of color the most, with Black and Latino men charged higher bail amounts than white men for similar crimes, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Legislators across the country have taken steps to limit the use of bail, with Illinois becoming the first state to eliminate cash bail completely. In New Jersey, the practice of assigning bail has significantly decreased after the state pursued sweeping criminal justice reform in 2017, despite legal challenges, according to NPR.
Washington, DC, operates without cash bail, and California and New York have both introduced legislation to limit the use of bail in their criminal justice systems, according to the New York Times. When New York ended cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent crimes, but not violence offenses, in 2019, activists said the reform did not go far enough.
“Why don’t I think they go far enough? The first reason is obvious: Money bail is just wrong,” Insha Rahman, program director for the Vera Institute of Justice, told Global Citizen at the time.
California attempted to eliminate cash bail in 2018 with Proposition 25, but criminal justice reform activists said it would replace one unjust system with another. Instead of cash bail, the state would rely on a risk assessment tool to decide detainment. Advocacy groups like the ACLU of California pulled their support for Proposition 25 based on the fact that just as many or more people could be detained under the new process without any mechanism for release.
After being challenged in 2018, Proposition 25 was officially beaten in November 2020, according to the Los Angeles Times, with the cash bail system still in effect in California.
The elimination of cash bail in Illinois will go into effect in January 2023, and under this new law, judges will not be able to set any kind of bail for a defendant charged with a crime.
The Vera Institute of Justice acknowledged the positive effects this law will have on Illinois’ criminal justice system. Firstly, it recognizes that money bail does not correlate with improved public safety and that pretrial detention can destabilize someone’s life and cause serious financial hardship. The organization also pointed out that the law is “the product of years of organizing and coalition building by advocates,” particularly due to support from the state’s Black Caucus and other representatives.
Despite backlash in Illinois from police unions and law enforcement coalitions, the Vera Institute of Justice wrote on its blog that the state has taken a historic first step toward decriminalizing poverty.
“Lawmakers must not allow racism, fearmongering, and dog whistles to derail this push to help close mass incarceration’s front door and invest in safer and healthier communities for all,” the organization said.