Illinois will soon become the first state in the United States to eliminate the cash bail system, allowing many suspects to remain free before their criminal trials. While law enforcement sources have opposed this change as a threat to public safety, advocates have celebrated the move as a way of lessening racial biases and economic inequalities within the criminal justice system.
Tackling economic and racial inequality
The Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act goes into effect on Monday. Specifically, it will eliminate the requirement that those charged with a crime must post cash bail to be released from jail while their cases are pending. Instead, the new law will generally allow those charged with most crimes to remain free pending trial.
Advocates for fairness, meanwhile, argue that the preexisting bail system separated people based on income, not level of threat to the population, with those who couldn’t afford bail sitting in jail for months or sometimes years while wealthier individuals could go home. Supporters also cite the racial disparities in pretrial detention under the cash bail system. Black and Latino men, for example, face higher average bail amounts than white defendants.
Addressing law enforcement concerns
Police organizations, prosecutors and conservative voices opposed the new law’s passage and implementation. Some critics even pushed the narrative that the Illinois bill was a “purge law,” referencing the movie series in which all crime becomes temporarily legalized; experts have refuted those claims. Supporters of the new law note, for example, that the provision to release suspects would not apply to those charged with violent crimes, sexual offenses or gun charges.
Although law enforcement organizations within the state have opposed this measure, many are coming to terms with the new reality within the state. Jim Kaitschuk, the executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, warned that “defendants who don’t post bond have no incentive to return to court” but indicated that law enforcement officials will respect the new law and are “working through it as best we can.”
Other states like New Jersey have implemented cash bail reforms with mostly positive results, though the cash bail issue remains politically controversial as national crime rates rise for certain offenses. Nonetheless, reforming or eliminating cash bail is picking up steam. Illinois’ bold step will likely be a significant test case influencing similar decisions in other parts of the country.