The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus succeeded earlier this month in ushering in legislation that would, among other things, end cash bail. If signed by Governor Pritzker, Illinois would be the first state to completely end the use of money bonds.
Lavette was arrested on an aggravated battery charge five years ago, following an altercation with her then-mother-in-law. Though she was never convicted, she was jailed for more than a year and spent four months on home confinement because she could not afford to pay the $25,000 bail. As the case wore on, bail was reduced to $9,500 and was paid by the Chicago woman’s family and the Chicago Community Bond Fund.
Lavette, who we are identifying only by her first name at her request, recently celebrated the adoption of a bill by the General Assembly earlier this month that would end cash bail.
“If this deal or any other orders was passed at that the time that I was arrested, it could have saved a lot of families from the heartaches that me and my family went through regarding losing housing, … losing jobs, and me almost losing my kids,’’ said Lavette, whose case was settled through a plea bargain.“ So, for this bill to have passed, this will help a lot of families that was in a place that I was in.”
The measure is wrapped in a far-reaching piece of criminal reform legislation designed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. It has not yet been signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. If he signs it, Illinois will be the first state to completely end the use of cash bail.
New Jersey ended use of cash bail for many crimes in 2017. In New York state, a measure ending money bail for some crimes was enacted in 2020, but was modified in the spring in several ways, including to make more crimes eligible for cash bail.
Supporters of the Illinois measure say it will ensure that offenders will not be detained because they can’t afford to pay bond, while those accused who have means can be released as their case winds through the courts. Often those cases are in poor, primarily Black communities. Chicago Democratic state Sen. Robert Peters, sponsor of the legislation in his chamber, said the money bond system hurts poor Blacks, especially women, hardest.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx recently spoke on the program for progressive entity, the Appeal. She offered an example. Someone is charged with shoplifting because they’ve stolen a few hundred dollars of merchandise. They can’t afford the $500 to get out.
“While at the same time, we have people who have been charged with first-degree murder, and have gotten a bail amount that they could, in fact, afford,’’ Foxx said. “And, so, when you're judging public safety, there's a person languishing in our jail because they are too impoverished to pay an amount to get out for an offense that does not risk public safety.”
But Jim Durkin, the minority leader of the Illinois House of Representatives and a former prosecutor in Cook County, disagrees. He points to Cook County, where money bail was ended with a court order by the chief justice in 2017. He cited a recent murder case in which the accused were free though they had a case pending.
“Public safety is the state's greatest responsibility to its citizens above all,” Durkin said. “The elimination of cash bail basically says that we respect the honor system for violent criminals and gang members,” he said. The GOP leader wants the governor to veto the legislation.
Lee Roupas, president of the Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association, said his organization, too, is troubled by the bill. He gave several examples of concerns.
“One of the provisions we're concerned about is the standard to detain a violent felon, pretrial. Prosecutors will now have to show in court that an individual poses a specific real and present threat to a person,” he said. “Typically, looking at somebody before court on a violent felony, they should be able to consider (the) offender’s criminal background, and then the nature of the offense and the potential of that then to pose a threat to the community.”
The bill, which would take effect in January 2023, if signed, offers dozens of charges that could compel a judge to detain the accused: first-degree murder, arson, gun-related offenses, sexual assaults and domestic violence and other crimes.
One of the changes that advocates for the legislation tout is that the measure also creates a risk-assessment tool to help a judge determine whether someone should be detained or released.
“We can track the outcome of what happens in bond court, what happens with jail decisions so we can make better decisions about how we should move forward when it comes to pretrial, said Sharone Mitchell, director of the Illinois Justice Project. The group is part of a coalition that advocated for the end of cash bail.
Mitchell says the bill maps the process for determining whether somebody will be detained. “In the status quo, we have like a patchwork of laws, some of them contradict each other.”
Sen. Peters, who sponsored the bill, says the measure will be financially beneficial to what he calls “tough” communities, like areas of the southside district he serves.
A recent study by Loyola University of Chicago found that over a six-month period after Cook County stopped much use of cash bond, $31.5 million was saved for those charged.
Peters said, “The matter of fact is we are setting the groundwork for what really brings safety and justice to our communities.’’
Now it’s up to Gov. Pritzker. He’s lent support to the concept of ending cash bail. But we may not know for months whether he endorses the General Assembly’s vision.