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Eye On Illinois: Cash bail reform goes well beyond one law, one vote


Tuesday, November 22, 2022  |  Article  |  Scott Holland

In the quest for reform, legislation is significant but not conclusive.


It’s been exactly 96 weeks since I used that sentence to open a column about the lame-duck passage of criminal justice omnibus bills.


“Rather than simply end cash bail with the governor’s signature,” the Jan. 19, 2021, piece continued, “the legislation now creates a two-year window to develop uniform standards for how courts will grant or deny pretrial release based on the criminal charges, flight risk and imminent danger to the community.”


If you’ve been paying any attention since, or simply looked through your mail, you’re familiar with the debate around the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, which covers a wide range of government operations but has been reduced in the public square to a conversation about who can or cannot be released from jail while awaiting trial on criminal charges.


Spotting a bad faith argument is as simple as assessing the arguer’s awareness of the Illinois Supreme Court Pretrial Implementation Task Force (tinyurl.com/PTAtaskforce), which started working several months before lawmakers adopted the SAFE-T Act and continues preparing. That effort involves a series of daylong regional educational seminars, including December events in Springfield, Carterville and Champaign.


This isn’t to say everyone should agree with the changes or whether they’re needed at all, but for years now it’s been disingenuous to suggest the people who voted to enact this reform rushed in without consideration of or regard for consequence.


The larger context far exceeds the last 96 weeks. In 2017, with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in office, the General Assembly changed rules so many people charged with nonviolent crimes didn’t have to post a cash bail. Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker was talking about eliminating cash bail altogether no later than January 2020.


We don’t really do speedy trials anymore. But charges aren’t convictions, so the bail system aims to ensure arrestees make court appearances without lingering in county lockup. By posting bail, the accused have a financial stake in the matter, but get to go home, continue working, retain family connections and secure competent legal representation.


Don’t have the money? Stay in jail. Risk employment, stable housing and support networks. It’s not difficult to envision how this begins to perpetuate a downward cycle, or to understand the inequity in a system where wealth yields better outcomes under the law.

Some people like allowing money to buy freedom. But not enough to outnumber lawmakers who voted to have judges assess risk, detaining those deemed dangerous or flight risks regardless of their wealth.


Implementation efforts continue, including possible veto session votes on technical aspects. As campaign rhetoric quiets, the reformers keep working. One law, one vote, is never the whole story.