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Why Ending Cash Bail in Illinois Is a Win for Racial Justice and Community Safety

The Pretrial Fairness Act not only ends the use of money bond, but will also dramatically reduce the number of people incarcerated while awaiting trial by raising the standards that must be met to justify infringing on someone’s pretrial freedom.

In February, Governor JB Pritzker signed the Pretrial Fairness Act (as included in HB3653), into law, solidifying the passage of the most progressive bail reform legislation in the nation. The Pretrial Fairness Act makes Illinois the first state to completely end the use of money bond, and it transforms our state’s pretrial justice system. Implementing this historic law will make Illinois a national leader in criminal justice reform by eradicating a system that has caused immeasurable harm to countless communities and been a driving force of mass incarceration.

The Problem with Money Bail

Every year, a quarter of a million people cycle through Illinois county jails. Ninety percent of the people jailed are presumed innocent and awaiting trial, and the vast majority because they cannot afford to pay a money bond. Money bond is a system that bases access to freedom on the state of one’s finances. Access to wealth determines whether someone can participate in their court process in their community, or whether they risk losing jobs, housing, or custody of their children while incarcerated pretrial. 

This devastating system of wealth based incarceration has long perpetuated an unequal justice system for poor communities of color: Black, Latino, and Native American people are twice as likely to be caged because they cannot pay a money bail. Their partners, families and communities are put in anguish, forced to choose between paying rent or paying to get their loved one out of jail. Their cries have gone unheard for far too long.

This is why passing the Pretrial Fairness Act is a win for racial justice

The Pretrial Fairness Act not only ends the use of money bond, but will also dramatically reduce the number of people incarcerated while awaiting trial by raising the standards that must be met to justify infringing on someone’s pretrial freedom. By enacting the constitutional premise that release is the norm, and detention is the carefully limited exception, the Pretrial Fairness Act restores the presumption of innocence. It provides critical protections for communities of color that have been criminalized, caged, and coerced into guilty pleas for decades, all in the name of justice. 

The advocates and organizers in the Coalition to End Money Bond and the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice knew it was critical to end money bond in a way that decreased pretrial incarceration. A pretrial system that removed money from the equation but locked up an equal or greater number of people would leave communities in an even worse state than before. 

Despite being touted as a public safety strategy, pretrial incarceration actually makes our communities far less safe. When people are incarcerated, pretrial or otherwise, they are torn from their communities and their lives are destabilized almost immediately. Being separated from one’s children and unable to care for them, losing work and income, missing rent payments and being evicted as a result. The domino effect of incarceration is dangerous for people’s finances, family, mental health, and more–and it doesn’t take a long jail stay for this to be the case. Being incarcerated for just 72 hours makes someone 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed a year later, and any past incarceration decreases income by nearly 40%. These negative consequences of pretrial incarceration ripple out and affect entire communities, and they also make a person more likely to be arrested in the future, even if they were found not guilty. 

By dramatically reducing pretrial incarceration, the Pretrial Fairness Act takes us a step closer to the safe and strong communities we all desire. When people’s lives are no longer destabilized by pretrial incarceration, they’ll have a better chance at maintaining employment, family ties, and contributions to their communities. Money that had been spent to incarcerate could then be reinvested into the resources that we know keep our communities safe. 

Moreover, people will be safe from the dangers and harms of pretrial incarceration, which are almost never factored into discussions about safety. Protecting the rights and safety of people impacted by the criminal legal system is not at odds with public safety, but is a part of it. 

The state of Illinois is not alone in making these changes. Cook County, New York City, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and the federal court system have all drastically reduced or eliminated money bail without any significant increase in people missing court or being rearrested while awaiting trial as a result. New Jersey in particular nearly cut their jail population in half with pretrial reforms, and crime rates actually went down. This is because incarceration doesn’t keep us safe. It never has. When we cease to quantify our safety with shackles or put our confidence in cages, we’ll be closer to becoming a community where all of us are truly free. 

Briana Payton is a Policy Analyst with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which is a member of the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, the statewide advocacy group that developed and organized to pass the Pretrial Fairness Act.