Ill. Gov. Calls For State Lawmakers To Phase Out Cash Bail

By Celeste Bott | February 2, 2020, 8:02 PM EST

Illinois should eliminate cash bail as a step along the "long path toward a fairer criminal justice system," Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in his state of the state address, calling for lawmakers to act on the idea in the spring session. 

The governor's remarks were brief, but he said criminal justice reforms should start with "phasing out cash bail" and that the Legislature should follow recommendations from a bipartisan commission created by former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican who was often at odds with the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Pritzker said in the Jan. 29 speech that most of the commission's ideas were never adopted "because of the rancor and dysfunction."

Some of the commission's recommendations included reductions in sentence classifications and other measures that would reduce Illinois' population of incarcerated persons by 2025. Earlier in January, Pritzker said his priorities in his second year in office would include pushing some of those reforms, as well as ending cash bail and reducing mandatory minimum sentences.

It's not immediately clear what the next steps will look like for Illinois, but discussions began last session on expanding the bail bond reform set in motion when Illinois lawmakers passed the Bail Reform Act in 2017. Under H.B. 3347, a proposal introduced last year, monetary bail would be abolished for certain offenses but judges would be allowed to use a risk assessment tool for others.

It’s a change that criminal justice reformers in the state have championed, arguing that the current money bond system often forces people who are charged of crimes, but not convicted, to stay in prison because they can’t afford to pay for freedom. But it has drawn opposition from the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association, with prosecutors and law enforcement officials raising concerns that eliminating cash bail entirely could strip funding for local services and programs, including victims services.

The 2017 law allows for those charged with nonviolent, low-level crimes be released without posting bail, giving judges discretion to set other conditions, such as electronic monitoring. It also requires an attorney be present at bail hearings.

That was a good first step, said Sharone Mitchell Jr., director of the Illinois Justice Project. But it doesn’t come close to what needs to be done, which is to end the practice altogether, he said.

Having the governor on board will help, Mitchell told Law360, and the rest is about education. Cash bonds were never an effective way to ensure people returned to court, he said.

“Actually, taking food out of people’s mouths makes them less likely to come to court,” Mitchell said.

He points to a 2017 order issued by Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans requiring judges to consider whether a person charged has the ability to pay the amount when setting monetary bail and to begin those proceedings with a presumption that conditions of release be non-monetary, imposing “the least restrictive conditions or combination of conditions necessary to reasonably assure the appearance of the defendant for future court proceedings.”

A report released on the impact of Judge Evans' order in May found it helped reduce the population of the Cook County jail by over 40% since January 2014.

It also found that 83.2% of defendants made all of their court appearances, and 83% remained charge-free prior to case disposition while on pretrial release. Roughly 0.6% of defendants were charged with a new violent offense on pretrial release.

But still, some cash bail bans have faced criticism. In New York, where the change took effect this month, critics of the new law say its failure to give judges discretion to determine if individuals charged with certain crimes would pose a threat if released can put dangerous people back on the street, and have called for New York legislators to revisit the law this year.

In other states like New Jersey, the end to cash bail has been a success, Mitchell said, leading to reduced jail populations and high return rates.

“We’ve got some really good examples,” Mitchell said. “It’s just a big change culturally. We have used money bonds for decades and decades. Change is hard. But the fact of the matter is, these things need to happen.”

Illinois lawmakers returned to the Capitol the last week in January, and will adjourn their spring session May 31.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.