Illinois Becomes First State In US To Eliminate Cash Bail That Discriminates Against Poor, People Of Color

Bail reform opponents warn that violent crime would increase, but reform advocates say the data disagrees.

A controversial criminal justice reform law went into effect Monday (Sept. 18), making Illinois the first state to end cash bail as a condition of pretrial release. Civil rights advocates have said the cash bail system discriminates against poor people of color accused of nonviolent offenses, but supports say it keeps dangerous criminals off the streets. Illinois is now a testing ground.

CBS Chicago reports that inmates in Cook County Jail and others around Illinois could start petitioning the courts to determine their eligibility for release under the SAFE-T Act. Going forward, criminal suspects would not have to pay money for release from jail during the pretrial stage. But a judge could keep them incarcerated if the court determines the suspect is dangerous, likely to flee prosecution or charged with a serious felony.

Prosecutors and sheriffs in 64 counties challenged the constitutionality of the SAFE-T Act, which is a provision of the state’s broader criminal justice reform law. In December, a Kankakee County judge ruled in their favor, which prompted the state Supreme Court to delay the Jan. 1 enforcement of the reform.

The high court in July upheld the constitutionality of the bail reform provision of the law, which the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus championed, overturning the lower court’s decision.

“This historic decision is the culmination of over a decade of organizing from countless grassroots organizations that deal directly with vulnerable communities in which cash bail has affected, including groups that support survivors of gender-based violence,” state Senator Robert Peters, chair of the Illinois Senate Black Caucus, said at that time.

The police union denounced the high court’s ruling, warning of dangerous consequences.

"The court ignored the pleas of nearly every prosecutor in the state of Illinois, Democrat and Republican, that the elimination of cash bail will put dangerous criminals back on the street, instead of keeping them in jail or forcing them to post cash bail as they await trial. Many of those offenders will commit crimes again within hours of their release," Illinois Fraternal Order of Police State Lodge President Chris Southwood said in July.

Supporters of cash bail reform argue that it is unfair for a suspect accused of a nonviolent misdemeanor to sit behind bars awaiting trial simply because they are poor. Meanwhile, more dangerous suspects who can afford bail walk out of jail in the pretrial stage.

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An analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative found that jurisdictions that compiled public safety data from before and after the adoption of pretrial reforms saw decreases or negligible increases in crime or re-arrest rates after implementing reforms.

Racial bias has also plagued the system. According to a 2022 federal civil rights report, courts tend to impose higher bail amounts on Black and Latino men than other demographic groups.

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