ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — Starting today, Illinois has abolished the use of cash bail to address “systemic racism” in the criminal justice system.

Under the Pretrial Fairness Act section of the SAFE-T Act, police must issue citations for suspects accused of low-level misdemeanors under the new system, instead of taking them to jail, and giving them a “notice to appear” at their court hearing.

If a suspect is arrested and brought to jail, judges have 48 hours to determine if they pose a “real and present threat to the safety of any person or persons or the community”, and therefore should not be released pre-trial. Some of these felonies include second-degree murder, aggravated driving under the influence, and burglary.

If they are detained, the law requires they receive a trial within 90 days, a timetable Winnebago County State’s Attorney J. Hanley said is nearly impossible, and warned that dangerous criminals could be released.

If “a judge believes that person is a danger and ordered them detained but on the 91st day, they’re being released because we weren’t able to try them in that amount of time. Doesn’t make them any less dangerous,” Hanley said last Thursday.

Those currently incarcerated will have to petition the court for a hearing to see if they are eligible for release, under the new rules.

According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the cash bail system disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities and other underrepresented or impoverished groups, who can’t afford bond.

The original Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today Act, which was introduced by the Illinois Black Caucus as part of Black legislators’ response to the murder of George Floyd, and was passed by the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives in the early hours of Jan. 13, 2021.

Many Illinois law enforcement agencies have warned the act will embolden criminals and make it harder for police to keep offenders off the streets.

Proponents have said the law is a necessary change to eliminate racism in the Illinois justice system since Black offenders make up the majority of the jail population. Proponents have said this is due to an “oppression” of Black residents, who they believe are unfairly targeted by police for low-level crimes and are too poor to pay their bail.

Opponents, which have included many law enforcement organizations, have said the law is lenient on crime and favors the criminal’s perspective over that of the victim.

Illinois legislators, faith leaders, and policy watchdogs have issued statements about the new law.

In favor of eliminating cash bail

“Today we are making history by taking the price tag off the presumption of innocence, one of our most basic rights. We know that historically, the majority of people behind bars in county jails were there because they could not afford to pay a money bond,” said Representative Maurice West (D-Rockford). “This is a new day for justice and fairness in our courts. With the lawsuits behind us, we are calling on everyone to come together to successfully implement the Pretrial Fairness Act.”
“Our faith calls on us to lift up the poor, release the prisoners and liberate the oppressed,” said Reverend Violet Johnicker of Rockford Urban Ministries and Brooke Road United Methodist Church. “The end of money bond will ensure that the amount of money a person has will no longer be what determines their freedom. Our communities will be safer when our neighbors and families no longer have to choose between paying bond and paying rent.”
“We are witnessing a significant moral victory with the end of money bond in Illinois, making our state a leader in the movement to end mass incarceration,” said Reverend K. Edward Copeland of New Zion Baptist Church. “People of color have been disproportionately harmed by the money bond system. Today we lift up the leadership of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus who acted swiftly and boldly to address systemic racism in our state. We will be working with all stakeholders to make sure the new law is implemented properly.”

State Senator Elgie R. Sims, Jr. (D-Chicago) said, “Today we finally take the long-overdue step toward dismantling systemic racism and eliminating the practices which have created barriers to opportunities and obstacles to prosperity for far too long. Illinois continues to show the rest of the nation that monumental change is possible to make the criminal legal system fair, equitable and just for all. Finally, being poor is not a crime and will never be the sole reason a person remains incarcerated as they await their trial.”

Opposed to the abolishment of cash bond

Sen. Andrew Chesney (R-Freeport) said, “Illinois is the only state in the nation that has completely eliminated the option of an accused person having to post monetary bail in order to walk free pending trial. Lower courts in Illinois agreed that stripping judges of their right to set cash bail was unconstitutional, but Illinois’ highest court, stacked with Democratic judges that have received hefty donations from Governor JB Pritzker, upheld the law…. Judges no longer have full discretion to determine whether a defendant is held pre-trial or walks free based on the unique circumstances of an individual case. If a judge is presiding over a hearing involving a non-detainable offense, and based on the specific circumstances they believe that individual poses a risk, their hands are tied. The defendant walks free pending trial…. The right thing to do would be to repeal the SAFE-T Act and craft a law that balances the rights of the accused with the rights of Illinoisans to feel safe in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, Illinois Democrats seem unwilling to do that.”

House Republican Leader Tony McCombie said “The end of cash bail means the legal deck is stacked against the victim and community in favor of the criminal. This law makes it more difficult for police officers and prosecutors to keep our communities safe by ensuring offenders in most cases can walk free shortly after committing a heinous offense. Ending cash bail has produced harmful results in other cities and states, and we have no reason to believe Illinois will be any different. We can only hope that innocent victims’ lives are not the ultimate price we have to pay.”

Paul Vallas, policy advisor for the Illinois Policy Institute, said, “As intended, Illinois introduced a necessary fairness to a judicial system that’s been previously tilted by one’s ability to pay. However, it doesn’t go far enough to ensure dangerous and habitual [criminals]will be kept off the streets. Illinois’ new program places added burdens on prosecutors to detain defendants who pose a threat to the community. Without a robust threat assessment program, dangerous or repeat offenders could slip through. Residents can’t afford this risk, especially in Chicago, where the city is amid a violent crime surge. In 2022, one in 1,000 Chicagoans was a victim of gun violence citywide. The Johnson administration has been slow and ineffective in providing solutions to the alarming trend. Illinois and Chicago would be wise to quickly enact additional policy reforms before innocent civilians are put at risk.”