Ending cash bail

Local activists have joined a statewide movement to educate people about the new law

Members of Springfield's Faith Coalition for the Common Good are joining a statewide effort to educate the public and speak up in favor of a number of reforms included under the recently passed Pretrial Fairness Act, including a planned end to cash bail in 2023.

Part of a larger criminal justice reform effort that passed the General Assembly in January, the Pretrial Fairness Act includes a number of provisions intended to make the process between when a defendant is arrested and stands trial more fair and less harmful for those involved in the court system while trying to prove their innocence. While ending the practice of charging defendants money to make bail is the most high-profile part of the new law, other provisions include alternatives to issuing warrants for people who fail to appear in court, requiring judges to consider alternatives to incarceration to ensure a defendant's attendance in court and requiring jurisdictions to collect more data on the outcomes of bond hearings, in the interest of transparency.

Jaylon Cal, a senior at University of Illinois Springfield, is working with the Faith Coalition to set up informational sessions about the new law. Ultimately, he said pretrial reforms are about leveling the playing field for people who have entered the criminal justice system and face the overwhelming task of proving their innocence, especially when they may be a missed shift away from losing a job. Under the Pretrial Fairness Act, charging people money to be bailed out of jail while they await trial would come to an end in favor of a system that assesses whether a defendant is violent or may be a flight risk.

"It gives people the right of being innocent until proven guilty," Cal said. "There are a lot of cases where people take guilty pleas just to get out of the situation because they're losing so much."

The Faith Coalition held one such session via a virtual town hall on Facebook Nov. 11, during which the group invited speakers to explain some of the particulars of the law and why it's important. Among those speaking was UIS professor of criminology Steve Schnebly, who said talk of pretrial reform often gets less attention than other criminal justice-related issues like policing and incarceration. Nonetheless, it's an issue with deep implications for a system founded upon the presumption of innocence.

"When we talk about pretrial decisions in general, they don't generate a lot of press," Schnebly said. "Lots of these pretrial decisions can have serious ramifications and can very much hinder the pursuit of a system we want to be fair and just."

During the town hall, Stephanie Taylor addressed her family's experiences in the pretrial system and how they relate to changes in the law. A community organizer for United Congregations Metro East with two sons who have been incarcerated, Taylor described how one son's incarceration, due in part to an inability to pay bail, resulted in a cascade of hardships.

"Had we had the money to bond my son out, he would have been able to grieve my brother's death," Taylor said. "He would have been able to make arrangements for the care of his child. What if I had not been able to be that grandmother who stepped up?"

Dominique Bates-Smith of Decatur, a community organizer working with the Faith Coalition on the informational sessions, said those stories demonstrate why pretrial reform is so necessary.

"When people are incarcerated, they don't have access to their jobs. They can lose custody of their children. If they're on assistance such as unemployment, they can lose access to that. They can lose access to their health care," Bates-Smith said. "Just being incarcerated for a couple of days can set off this domino effect that can change their life and have long-lasting effects."

During weeks of debate surrounding the measure's passage in Springfield, law enforcement agencies and personnel were vocal in opposition to it and other parts of the larger criminal justice reform package that was eventually branded as the SAFE-T Act. Speaking on the Pretrial Fairness Act, Robert Berlin, DuPage County state's attorney and former president of the Illinois State's Attorneys Association, said prosecutors are reviewing the law with an eye toward what he said were inconsistencies in who qualifies for release and why. He said he expects changes to the Illinois law to address those inconsistencies.

Berlin said divorcing bail from payment seems to be working in New Jersey, which ended cash bail in 2017.

"As long as there's a mechanism for judges to hold people who are dangerous to the community or who are not likely to appear in court, we want to make sure that we have the right people being held," Berlin said. That should not mean someone who just can't make bail for a charge of retail theft, he said.

The Faith Coalition is one of dozens of member organizations throughout the state that comprise the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, and Cal's efforts are part of its statewide push to educate the public on what's in the new law and why it's important.

Aditi Singh, state director for the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, said that with the law now passed, her organization is focused on seeing the law implemented as safely and effectively as possible. That includes having more conversations with the public and with law enforcement organizations about what's really in the law and why, she said, it's good for everybody.

"Pretrial incarceration actually leads to a lot of disruption in people's lives. When that happens, that disruption can further complicate issues of public safety," Singh said. "I believe that a shift like this is a big cultural change, and when we've been doing something a certain way for a long time, it's hard to know what it could look like on the other side of things. I'd like to believe that with time, we'll be able to have better conversations with law enforcement about how this is good for them as well."

Cal and Bates-Smith said they're reaching out to other organizations in the Springfield area to gauge interest in hosting additional town halls and informational sessions in the future.

Kenneth Lowe is a staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at klowe@illinoistimes.com.

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