Ending cash bail keeps families together, communities safe and strong

Since Illinois became the first state in the nation to outlaw cash bail, data shows early signs of success in building a more equitable system.

Advocates report decreased jail populations in several counties, along with judges spending more time assessing individuals based on risk to public safety. Most importantly, more people are able to maintain their jobs and stay with their families.

“People used to plead guilty just to get out of jail,” said LaTanya Jackson Wilson, vice president of advocacy at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “For far too long, wealth-based detention has penalized the poor. Poverty is a policy choice, and Illinois is a leader in the country for making a better choice for families and communities.”

This bail reform went into effect as part of the Pretrial Fairness Act in September 2023. The Illinois General Assembly passed the measure in February 2021 as part of the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act. Its goal is to reduce the number of people detained before their trial and create safer communities.

Under the old system of cash bail, judges set a dollar amount a person would have to pay for their freedom. This meant that income and assets determined if someone stayed in jail during before trial. This unfair practice doesn’t keep people safe and punishes families with low income, leading to pretrial detention solely based on an individual’s inability to afford bail rather than the risk they pose to the community.

Now under the new law, defendants go through pretrial hearings to determine if they will be released. Courts can order pretrial detention if prosecutors ask for it. It puts the burden on prosecutors to file requests with judges and prove the defendant poses either a danger to the community or a flight risk. Judges then assess the threat the individual poses instead of how much resources their families have to get them out of jail.

Since the law’s implementation, the impact is clear. In Cook County, the jail population has decreased about 13%, according to county data. Across the state, average daily jail populations also dropped in the first few months, according to a Loyola University Chicago study. The pretrial population has gone from 10,000 to 3,000. And despite concerns raised by the opposition, defendants released ahead of trial show up for hearings.

A study based on courtroom observations by Loyola University researchers reports judges spending longer times on detention hearings. Now, average hearings might last up to 30 minutes. Previously, some judges made decisions in four minutes. The researchers also reported that judges were providing more detailed explanations for their rulings. Data provided by the chief judge’s office shows that judges grant detention petitions from prosecutors about 60% of the time.

Pretrial detention harms people. Just 72 hours in jail makes someone 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed one year later. It leads to housing insecurity and homelessness; even just a few days in jail lead to the loss of jobs and income, putting entire households at risk of eviction.

A 2022 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that between 1970 and 2015, the number of people jailed before trial increased by 433%. There are currently about 500,000 people stuck in jails across the nation who have not been tried or convicted of any crimes. The report also found “stark disparities with regards to race.” Black and brown men were the group most subjected to higher bail amounts.

The discriminatory practice of cash bail is rooted in slavery. Although outlawed since 1865, its vestiges still exist in mass incarceration. The criminal legal system targets Black and brown people and those living in poverty. It has a disproportionate impact on Black people in particular, who made up 51% of the Illinois jail population in 2019. That’s almost four times the number of Black people in the state’s population.

“Our country was founded on the promise of freedom and justice for all, but that vision didn’t include everyone and it remains that way today,” Jackson Wilson said. “When we look at our history, we see certain areas of this country didn’t even have prisons until slavery ended. It’s been 159 years — we need to make more progress on inequities that hold us all back.”

The opposition remains strong, with misinformation efforts intended to drive fear and overturn public support. The state legislature initially passed its cash bail ban in 2021, but lawsuits from county prosecutors and sheriffs last year held it up. A lower court in Kankakee had ruled abolishing cash bail was unconstitutional, but the Illinois Supreme Court overturned that ruling in July 2023.

The landmark legislation came out of heavy organizing in Chicago and broad support from the city’s elected officials. The Shriver Center worked on passage of the Pretrial Fairness Act with the Coalition to End Money Bond. We helped get the legislation passed in 2021, made phone calls to drum up more support, and signed on in response to challenges to the bill.

Ending cash bail is an important step in the fight for racial and economic justice, but more work needs to be done. The recently passed Pretrial Success Act allocates $15 million for wrap-around services to those who are released. People awaiting trial may have mental health and substance abuse issues that need addressing for successful outcomes. The Shriver Center will keep advocating for solutions like this that improve the safety of our communities and maintain the dignity of people navigating legal systems.

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Our policies and laws must value families, center communities, and end racial inequities.

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