Illinois is set to make history as the first state in the nation to eliminate cash bail, as the state Supreme Court recently ruled that a provision in the SAFE-T Act did not violate the state constitution.
The decision has been met with both support and criticism, as the reform is expected to bring significant changes to the state’s criminal justice system.
The controversial SAFE-T Act, signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker last year, was designed to put an end to cash bail starting January 1.
However, legal challenges from prosecutors and sheriffs in multiple counties claimed that the law was unconstitutional, jeopardized public safety and put law enforcement at risk. A Kankakee County judge initially ruled the law unconstitutional, but the state’s highest court overturned that decision in a recent ruling.
The ruling means that starting September 18, Illinois will become the first state in the U.S. to fully abolish cash bail.
Under the new law, suspects charged with crimes will no longer be required to post bail to be released from jail while awaiting trial, unless they are deemed a threat to the public or likely to flee.
Justice Mary Jane Theis, who authored the court’s ruling, said that the Illinois Constitution does not mandate monetary bail as the only means to ensure defendants appear for trials or protect the public.
“Our constitution creates a balance between the individual rights of defendants and the individual rights of crime victims. The Act’s pretrial release provisions set forth procedures commensurate with that balance,” Theis added.
Pritzker celebrated the court’s decision. “We can now move forward with historic reform to ensure pre-trial detainment is determined by the danger an individual poses to the community instead of by their ability to pay their way out of jail,” he said.
Despite the victory for bail reform advocates, critics argue that such significant changes should be decided by the voters through a ballot measure.
They further expressed concerns that eliminating cash bail may lead to suspects being released back onto the streets after arrest and charges, potentially impacting public safety and increasing crime rates.
Sheriffs in southern Illinois, where high numbers of drug-related trespassing and burglaries are experienced, are particularly worried about the potential consequences of the new law.
Franklin County Sheriff Kyle Bacon and Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Bullard expressed their apprehensions, stating that law enforcement and attorneys will bear the brunt of these changes.
“Folks who live here are extremely concerned,” Bacon told Fox News. “It’s an experiment on the backs of victims of crime. I have serious concerns and so do the people that live here.”
Bullard argued that the impact of such reforms will be felt primarily by law enforcement.
“We did our job. We arrested them, incarcerated them, and then the state’s attorney makes the argument that they should be remanded for trial, and the judge, based on the SAFE-T Act guidelines, says, ‘Now I’m forced to let them go.’” Bullard said.
Bullard also noted that the effects of the law may be more noticeable in rural areas compared to large metropolitan areas, where crime can be more easily overlooked.
“A lot of things can be lost in the shuffle of a large metropolitan area, like Chicago,” Bullard said. “Crime and especially violent crime, in a rural county, a lot of people hear about it, a lot of people are concerned about it — it does not get lost in the shuffle.
Both Bacon and Bullard, along with other law enforcement officials, stated that they will continue to serve and protect their communities within the limits of the law, but they are uncertain about the implications the reform may have on their ability to maintain public safety.
“We have 100 people sitting in jail or requiring cash bond. What happens with that? We have literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of arrest warrants that are assigned a cash bond. What happens with that?” Bacon added. “All of these questions exist and, quite honestly, I sit here and have no idea what the answers are.”
On the other hand, bail reform advocates argue that the current cash bail system disproportionately affects communities of color, and the elimination of cash bail will address these disparities.