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Illinois’ End To Cash Bail Has Activists Celebrating — And Critics Hoping For Changes

In January, the Illinois Legislature passed legislation ending cash bail. The Pretrial Fairness Act was signed into law by Gov. Pritzker on Monday, February 22, 2021.
File photo / Randy von Liski
In January, the Illinois Legislature passed a measure ending cash bail. The Pretrial Fairness Act was signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday.

Advocates are celebrating a new law that will end wealth-based pretrial detention in Illinois. With Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature yesterday, the state becomes the first in the country to eliminate cash bail.

Stephanie Taylor, a Belleville mother with firsthand experience of being unable to post bail for her family members, is hopeful the new law will benefit families that otherwise would not be able to post bail for their loved ones.

“I spent my entire life doing my best to protect my boys — working three jobs to keep them in safe neighborhoods and schools, different programs, trying to keep them involved,” she said. “So to be in a situation where the size of my bank account kept me from being able to help them was heartbreaking.”

The change comes in the wake of years of activism and grassroots efforts, said Marie Franklin, a network coordinator for Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice. She credited the creation of the Chicago Community Bond Fund in 2016 for kickstarting the conversation.

“They knew this was a problem and were creating funds to be able to help people get bonded out when they didn’t have the money,” Franklin said. “But at the same time, they recognized that it was just a Band-Aid on the problem. Because the problem is, why do we have to keep bonding people out like this? Why is money the precursor that decides whether somebody stays or goes?”

From there, organizers worked to create the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice in 2019.

“Organizations across the country banded together to end cash bond in Illinois because it has such a devastating impact, particularly on Black and brown communities,” Franklin said.

The law is not without opposition, however. Law enforcement organizations and other opponents of the bill are already gearing up to lobby for changes, one day after it was signed into law.

“There were a lot of things that are very good in the bill, [and] there are lots of things that were, I believe, detrimental to public safety in the bill,” said Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keeven.

Keeven said he believes the law will no longer allow officers to arrest someone for a Class B or C misdemeanor. For example, if an individual is trespassing on a property — not making threats but refusing to leave — he believes the officer would only be able to issue a citation under the new law.

“I don’t think our communities would be satisfied with us walking away after an individual refuses to leave their property,” he said.

Other concerns about the law include language relating to an officer’s use of force.

“There are concerns and there are fears about what is allowed, what amount of force is allowed to be used to take someone into custody, because there are pieces of this legislation that tell us that, if we have identified the individual and we can take them into custody at a later date, we are not to use force to make an arrest,” he said. “Well, quite frankly, you can always take someone into custody at a later date.”

Sarah Staudt, a staff attorney with the criminal justice advocacy nonprofit Chicago Appleseed, disagreed with several of Keeven’s interpretations. She would like critics to read the law for themselves.

“I would really urge everybody to make sure that they’re looking at the actual language and that they’re hearing from multiple sides, and paying attention to what lots of different groups are saying about this bill,” she said, “because it’s really, really important that we talk about what’s really in here and what we were really trying to do as we move forward to implement it.”

Both New York and New Jersey have gotten credit in the media for ending cash bail, but Staudt said they did not go nearly as far as Illinois. Those states ended up allowing cash bail for some offenses and not in others, which she said is a flawed approach.

“It’s a system that doesn’t work no matter what people are charged with, because it’s a system where the decision between whether someone is in jail or not is based on money,” Staudt said. “You could be charged with murder or a misdemeanor, and that’s still not a smart way to determine whether or not you should remain in jail. … Because right now, so many people who are held in jail really don’t pose a threat to anybody else. It’s a waste of their lives and a waste of resources.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.