Illinois Leads the Way in Progressive Criminal Justice Reforms

Authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2020) recently published Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, an expansive exploration of poverty in the United States. Throughout the book, the authors argue that the bail process is one of many outdated criminal justice practices in the United States that disproportionately impacts those living in poverty (and, in turn, people of color).  

 For example, Kristof and WuDunn (2020) point out that Harvey Weinstein was freed on bail “after [he] was arrested for sexual assault following accusations by more than 80 women,” but that “a young adult caught smoking marijuana may be unable to afford bail and thus be stuck . . . in jail” awaiting trial. 

 Cash bail is not only problematic because of the way that it “criminalizes poverty,” but also because of the way that the system fills our jails. According Lea Hunter, a research associate for the Center for American Progress, 60 percent of incarcerated people have not been convicted of a crime, but instead are awaiting trials. And the problem has grown rapidly; according to Hunter “the use of pretrial detention” increased 433 percent between 1970 and 2015.  

 Just a year after Tightrope’s publication, Illinois became the first state to eliminate the cash bail system. The Illinois Pre-Trial Fairness Act is part of a much larger criminal justice reform bill passed by the House of Representatives and signed into law by the governor on Feb. 22.  

 Other reforms included in the legislation include requiring the use of body cameras by police officers, a ban on chokeholds or any action that restricts breathing, an end to qualified immunity, the indefinite holding of officers’ misconduct files, and limitations on the use of military equipment by law enforcement. Significant support for the bill was driven by the caucus of Illinois black lawmakers. Many portions of the new law will be implemented on July 1, 2021, but the cash bail reform will not go into full effect until January 2023.  

 Like the bill itself, the topic of eliminating cash bail is very progressive. Dr. Adelle Sanders, professor of public welfare policy in GSU’s Department of Social Work, provided some context for the legislation. Dr. Sanders has worked in the public policy arena since 1975 and has been employed in local, state, and federal positions throughout her career.  

 She has even worked for grassroots campaigns, including advocating for the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. In fact, Dr. Sanders’s entire career reflects her ability to identify and respond to the needs of Native American tribal communities by means of policy reform.  

Dr. Sanders explained one of the biggest flaws in the cash bail system: if people cannot afford to pay their bail, they are forced to sit in jail for the entire time that their case is moving through the court system. Although citizens are promised the right to a “speedy trial,” people waiting for their case to reach the judge can wait up to a year or more.  

In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak temporarily postponed numerous cases, pushing back trial dates even further. While locked away, Sanders says that the convicted person has little opportunity to “participate in their own defense” and is not able to be a productive member of society.

The cash bail system does not apply only to those accused of violent crimes. Sanders points out that people accused of “nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors” might also be sitting in jail until their trial because they are unable to afford their bail.  

The cash bail system damages so many more citizens than just the individual awaiting trial. Children lose a parent, companies must hire and train new employees, and communities have one fewer productive member to pay taxes, develop their skills, and raise a family.  

Sanders also pointed out that the costs associated with maintaining local jails will decrease significantly as the need to house and feed people who could not afford bail diminishes, providing an economic a benefit to taxpayers. The savings from the jail costs can be rededicated to social institutions that promote community growth, such as public education, road maintenance, or health services.  

“The money will still be there,” Sanders says, “but it can be used for more positive purposes.” 

Dr. Sanders is interested to see how the new law fares. She expects to see major opposition from bail bond companies and police unions. Sanders notes that reforms that relate to firearms will especially be targeted, and may eventually find their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The elimination of the cash bail system protects the accused, encourages family reunification, and urges a more productive society. Sanders referred to the legislation as “progressive and very necessary,” and she celebrates it as “a way to restore trust in law enforcement.” The bill is certainly a badge of pride for Illinois as the state leads the country in establishing criminal justice reforms.