Illinois Becomes First State to Abolish Cash Bail

Similar measures have been passed in other states, including New Jersey and California.

Similar measures have been passed in other states, including New Jersey and California. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Judges will instead use a risk assessment tool to determine a defendant's fitness for release. The change is part of a broader criminal justice reform bill Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed this week.

Illinois this week became the first state in the country to eliminate cash bail, a system that critics say leaves poor people—most often minorities—in jail for months awaiting trial.

The cash bail measure was one of a dozen initiatives in a sweeping criminal justice reform bill signed Monday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Other measures include a requirement that all police officers wear body cameras, increased investment in training and mental health services for law enforcement, and the elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fees and fines. 

The “landmark legislation,” Pritzker said, will help increase accountability for law enforcement and make the state’s legal system more equitable for residents.

“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," the governor added in a statement.

Under the new law, judges will not be able to set any kind of bail for most defendants. Instead, they’ll use a risk assessment system to determine whether a defendant is a good candidate for release. Detention is a last option to be used only when “it is determined that the defendant poses a specific, real and present threat” to another person, or “has a high likelihood of willful flight.”

Judges will still be able to detain defendants charged with felonies, including murder and domestic battery.

The new system will be phased in over a two-year period and will not go fully into effect until 2023, though other parts of the law will take effect in July.

Law enforcement organizations disagreed with the bill, saying it unfairly targeted police officers and removed essential protocols for prosecutors, judges and courts.

“The public will learn more about these flaws when they see for themselves that common-sense tools needed by the police, state’s attorneys and the courts have been stripped by this law,” Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said in a statement.

But other states have limited the use of cash bail, with positive results. New Jersey passed bail reform measures in 2017; studies have since found that court appearances remained high, criminal activity didn't spike, and defendants who were released without cash bail “were no more likely to be charged with a new crime or fail to appear in court” than people charged under the previous system.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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