Illinois has become the first state to completely eliminate cash bail, a result of a push by state legislators to end a practice they say keeps poor people in jail for months awaiting trial and disproportionately affects Black and Latino defendants.
The change is part of a sweeping law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, on Monday. He said the legislation would transform the state’s legal system and increase accountability measures for police officers, such as requiring the use of body-worn cameras by police departments statewide.
“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 in a statement.
Over the years, New Jersey, California and New York have limited the use of bail, a system that opponents have criticized as unfair to poor people, who are forced to remain in detention even though they have not been convicted of the charges that led to their arrest. Supporters of the elimination of cash bail have pointed to cases like that of Kalief Browder, who was 16 when he was ordered held for three years at Rikers Island because his family could not afford a $3,000 bail. Browder, who was accused of stealing a backpack, killed himself two years after his release, when he was 22.
Under Illinois’ new law, judges will no longer be able to set any kind of bail for a defendant charged with a crime, making it unique among states that have reformed the bail system, according to legislators.
Legislators had tried for at least five years to pass legislation that would end the practice, according to state Rep. Kam Buckner, who is also chairman of the Illinois House Legislative Black Caucus, which pushed for the law.
The killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes, touched off a nationwide examination of the treatment of Black people and other people of color by the police and court system, Buckner said.
“We’ve had a very obvious and painful reckoning over the last 12 months in this country,” he said. People have done “some soul-searching and have realized that we need to change the way we do business.”
Buckner said the legislation was the culmination of exhaustive research into the laws and practices in other states and countries. Under the new system, judges will be presented with evidence to determine what kind of risk releasing a defendant poses to the community and whether the defendant can be counted on to return to court. A judge will then determine if the person should be held in detention until trial.
The cash bail system will not be abolished until January 2023, giving court officials time to prepare for the new system, said state Sen. Elgie Sims, one of the authors of the legislation.
The Illinois Law Enforcement Coalition, a group representing law enforcement officials across the state, said in a statement that the new law would hamstring police officers trying to do their jobs. The coalition said political leaders had discounted about 120,000 residents of the state who signed a petition opposing the legislation.
“This new law is a blatant move to punish an entire, honorable profession that will end up hurting law-abiding citizens the most,” said the coalition, which represents police union groups as well as the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said he was concerned that the elimination of cash bail would make cities and towns less safe.
Jails have become de facto centers for people suffering from mental health disorders and addiction, he said. “The only way to intervene is to arrest them and bring them to jail, where you have the opportunity to sit in a cell and get some help,” Kaitschuk said.
The new law does not take into consideration the lack of resources for defendants who may be released into the community without access to mental health or drug counseling and “be a risk to themselves or others,” he said.
“I’m certainly not going to sit here and profess that the system is completely fair in its entirety,” Kaitschuk said. “But we completely threw the whole thing out here.”
Sims, the state senator, said the law would divert people accused of low-level drug crimes into recovery programs.
“The argument that we have to lock people up to get them help is antithetical to what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.
Opponents of the elimination of cash bail have also pointed to increases in crime in cities like New York, where the number of homicides and shootings surged last year.
There is no data that links changes to the bail system to increases in crime, said Preeti Chauhan, a professor of psychology and director of the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which examined the changes to the New York bail system.
There have been recent surges in crime in dozens of U.S. cities, including places where there has been no bail reform, Chauhan said, noting other factors that could be affecting crime rates, such as the pandemic, increased unemployment and the dearth of affordable housing.
“There is something bigger happening,” she said.