Illinois Abolishes Cash Bail in Sweeping Criminal Justice Overhaul

February 24, 2021 Updated: February 24, 2021

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a sweeping criminal justice and police reform measure into law on Feb. 22 that includes making the state the first in the nation to completely abolish cash bail.

Pritzker, a Democrat, said in a statement after signing the bill that “this legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state, and our nation and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness, and true justice.”

Proponents of the change have argued that cash bail unfairly affects poor defendants, while critics say it skews the scales of justice in favor of criminals and makes communities less safe. While there have been efforts in other states to get rid of cash bail, related reforms in New York and Alaska were later amended or reversed.

Under the new law, called House Bill 3653, judges won’t be able to set any kind of bail for defendants charged with crimes. Although defendants deemed to be flight risks or who pose a threat to public safety may be ordered to remain behind bars pending trial, the bill places an added burden on judges to justify such decisions. They will have to explain in writing why less restrictive conditions aren’t appropriate and there will have to be greater specificity provided in justifying assertions that a defendant’s pretrial release poses a real and present threat to the community.

Opponents of cash bail have long argued that it has a disproportionately negative effect on people of color, leaving people who can’t come up with the money to post bail languishing behind bars for weeks or months, disrupting their lives and those of family members.

“Spending even a few days in jail can result in people losing their job, housing, and even custody of their children,” the left-leaning policy think tank Center for American Progress said in an analysis. “Studies show that pretrial detention can actually increase a person’s likelihood of rearrest upon release, perpetuating an endless cycle of arrest and incarceration. What is more, the cash bail system often leads to the detention of people who do not pose a threat to public safety.”

Besides eliminating cash bail, the bill contains a number of other measures, including requiring all police officers to wear body cameras by 2025, abolishing all chokeholds, banning departments from buying military equipment, and introducing new guidelines for “decertification” of officers, including allowing for anonymous complaints to be used against officers in disciplinary and decertification hearings.

Illinois House GOP leader Jim Durkin called Pritzker’s support of the bill “an insult to our first responders, law enforcement, and the law-abiding citizens of Illinois who work to live free of violence and destruction from the criminal element. It’s clear that Gov. Pritzker does not understand this bill and what it means to our criminal justice system.”

Ed Wojcicki, the executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, released a statement calling the bill “anti-police.”

He said it “unfairly targets officers and attempts to punish them, not just make them accountable.”

“The bill has serious flaws that have been well-documented in our fact sheets and updates, but today the bill became law,” Wojcicki said. “The public will learn more about these flaws when they see for themselves that common-sense tools needed by the police, state’s attorneys, and the courts have been stripped by this law.”

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