The Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Pretrial Practices is expected to make recommendations for reforms to the state’s pretrial justice system in December.
To talk about what that means, and what is being asked by state and nationwide advocates, reporter Daisy Contreras spoke to Sharlyn Grace, executive director for the Chicago Community Bond Fund, an organization that works with other partners to end cash bond and pretrial incarceration.
Daisy Contreras: So your group and many others have been hard at work, strategizing, as this December deadline approaches. What is at stake if what you're asking for doesn't happen?
Sharlyn Grace: I would say the health and well-being of many of our communities across the state of Illinois, particularly those that are most vulnerable — so Black and Brown communities, and communities living in poverty. In Illinois, more than 250,000 people are admitted to the state's 92 jails every year. And that's a lot of people and the majority of them are pretrial. So, they haven't been convicted of anything, they're still awaiting trial, and the majority are being jailed because they can't afford to pay a money bond. So, we know that that's a basic issue of fairness of how our justice system works and how we treat people who are presumed innocent.
DC: As I mentioned earlier, the Illinois Supreme Court's Commission on Pretrial Practices will make a recommendation, a report, at the end of the year. Why was this commission formed in the first place?
SG: Well, the issue of money bail and pretrial detention is something that's been talked about a lot in Illinois, in Cook County and nationally. So, what the Illinois Supreme Court did is part of a national trend. And part of that's because of litigation. Municipalities are being sued because people who have money are free and people who don't have money are locked up and that raises serious questions.
And so essentially, practices in Illinois are going to change whether it's because of a lawsuit or it's because of forward thinking policy, pushed by community members and adopted by elected officials.
DC: Four public hearings were held over the course of the first half of the year. And this wouldn't have been possible had it not been for your organization and other partners pushing for the commission to allow public feedback before this report is released at the end of the year. What happened here?
SG: Well, I think it depends on what we view the role of the commission to be and what we view the role of community members ,in particularly people from the communities that are most impacted by criminalization and money bond, to be in system change.
So, I think when the commission was formed, it was very much focused on the voices of stakeholders, you know, the majority of the people on the commission are judges. And the judiciary isn't subject to the Public Meetings Act, it's not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so it’s a very closed process, and a lot of times judges view themselves as the appropriate leaders of change within the court system. And obviously as grassroots organizations, community-based organizations, we see the people impacted by policies as the people who should be leading change.
And so we make sure that people are at the center of policies and not sort of the bureaucratic administration of the courts or the comfort of people who work in the court system, who by in large do not come from the same communities that are being charged and processed in that court system.
DC: What was some of the public feedback that was given during these public hearings?
SG: A lot of the public feedback focused on the need to end secured money bond in Illinois. You know, it's not an evidence-based policy, and it results in a massive harm to communities.
Many of the speakers at different hearings spoke specifically in support of a proposed Supreme Court rule that was submitted in the Fall of 2017 by various Cook County stakeholders and supported by community organizations — more than 70 local and national community organizations have signed on in support of that rule. And also, by the legal community. There's a lot of support for this rule. And it's very simple. All it says is that people cannot be jailed simply because they don't have a certain amount of money.
DC: What are some of the options? If we don't get what the groups are asking for what are some other alternatives or approaches to the issue?
SG: So in addition to the proposed Illinois Supreme Court rule, there's also the possibility for legislation. The coalition has supported the Equal Justice for All Act which would end money bond and secure greater protections for people who are presumed innocent.
And we've also worked with Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth out of Peoria to support the Pretrial Data Act, which would be an intermediate step and just help everyone, community members, local officials, legislators understand what's currently happening. Because part of the problem is that there isn't a uniform data collection or access about what kind of bond decisions are made, who's in jail and why -- in all of Illinois' 102 counties.
And there's also litigation. So there will be more litigation in Cook County, possibly in other counties. And it's always possible that a judge will order jurisdictions to change the way that they're using money bail, because what we've been doing in Illinois is clearly unconstitutional.