Illinois abolishes money bail after activist push

By Amrita Bhattacharyya, Staff Writer

Illinois has become the first state in the nation to abolish the money bond after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation Feb. 22. The reforms came after concerted efforts from activist organizations in C-U and beyond. 

The Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act, one portion of the larger Illinois House Bill 3653, which passed multiple criminal justice reform measures, bans the use of money bail to hold individuals awaiting trial in jail.

The money bond is utilized by states as an incentive for arrested individuals to come back to court for their court date. If the individual shows up for their court date, they receive their cash bail back. 

In an Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Pretrial Practices report in 2020, the Supreme Court found that “a mere few days in jail may impose collateral consequences that attach to the loss of pretrial freedom and custodial detention.” 

This includes an individual losing their job due to not showing up for work, losing custody of a child or losing their home due to a lack of income.

“What’s been found is that even when people don’t have a financial stake in returning to their court date, that they still go to their court date,” said Phillip Ernstmeyer, member of the Champaign County Bailout Coalition. “People want to be able to defend themselves when they’ve been accused of a crime.” 

Local activist groups such as the Champaign County American Civil Liberties Union and the CCBC worked to advance the passage of the act through advocacy and mobilizing support. 

“There’s just been widespread agreement that the old system needed to be reformed … it was not fair and it was not working. And really, it criminalized poverty,” said Carol Spindel, member of the Champaign County American Civil Liberties Union. 

Carol Leff, Champaign County ACLU president, says that some people misunderstand what ending money bail means. For example, being released without bail does not apply to violent offenses.

“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for people who might be at risk to themselves or others,” Leff said. 

In addition to abolishing money bail, the legislation also limits eligibility for pretrial incarceration, makes it easier to decertify officers who commit misconduct and requires officers to wear body cameras by 2025.

While many portions of the legislation will go into effect July 1, money bail will be abolished in Jan. 2020. 

The slow phase-in of the legislation’s components gives judges and courts time to organize the best way to implement the reforms, Spindel said. 

In some ways, C-U is already ahead of the curve. For example, the county already requires its officers to wear body cameras and Urbana has already ended the requirement of signing an affidavit to file police complaints.

According to Leff, the coalition supporting criminal justice reform had to compromise when it came to advocating for parts of the act.

Specifically, the coalition decided to not advocate for the passage of qualified immunity, which gives officers legal immunity against lawsuits alleging that the officer violated a plaintiff’s rights, unless a “clearly established” right was violated.

“Immunity is qualified, but that qualification is very broad and usually requires a fairly large and expensive court case,” Leff said. “It was a practical decision not to try to push that because the voting majority for that general crime bill would’ve been lost.

Although qualified immunity can’t be changed at the local level, local activist organizations including the Champaign County ACLU have been coordinating to advocate for other changes, such as clearer definitions in Urbana’s use of force policy and prioritized de-escalation. 

 “I think that the pretrial fairness act is a significant step forward for bail reform in Illinois,” Ernstmeyer said. “It’s a monumental moment for jail reform, for the anti-incarceration movement nationally.”

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