It would be a mistake to allow the county court systems around Illinois to opt out of the recently enacted Bail Reform Act.
In 2017, the act passed with broad bipartisan majorities in the state House and Senate, was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner and took effect in 2017.
It granted new rights to people accused of crimes and changed the rules for when people were required to post cash bail to be released from jail. Although people who are violent or dangerous still can – and should – be required to post cash bail, many others accused of nonviolent crimes or misdemeanors can be released on a recognizance, or “signature,” bond, requiring no money to be posted.
The reforms have helped keep more people out of jails while they await justice. Some defendants are required to wear ankle bracelets that monitor their location with GPS or detect if they’ve consumed alcohol. Judges also can issue orders barring them from contact with victims, children or others as a condition of their release.
Recently, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally and state Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, announced they were working on a proposal that would allow counties with less than 3 million people – in other words, all but Cook County – to opt out of these reforms.
At the heart of their argument is money. Court administrators complain that in the absence of requiring people to post cash to be released, it is harder for them to collect court fees from people after they are convicted.
That probably is true. Criminals often don’t have a lot of money. Although judges have the power to garnish people’s wages and take other measures, the most effective way to get money from someone is when they need it to buy their freedom.
Cash bail serves as kind of a down payment on those court fees, which can exceed hundreds of dollars. But rolling back bond reform would be a mistake. This legislation provided important protections for the poor, designed to make the court system more humane and less destructive of people’s lives.
In addition to keeping people who can’t afford to post bail out of jail, it requires that a person always be represented by a lawyer, even at their first court appearance, where a judge typically sets the conditions for their release. Who would argue that a person should not have legal representation whenever they appear before a judge in a criminal case?
The law also guarantees that anyone required to post cash bail will be granted a hearing within seven days to have the amount reduced. Often, after that “cooling off” period passes, bond is reduced.
Technology provides many options for monitoring people that were not available years ago. It is not necessary for people who are not an imminent threat to the community to languish in jail before they are convicted of any crime, potentially losing their homes, jobs and relationships. Some people in the past have spent more time in jail for want of bail money than they might otherwise have been sentenced to serve.
People subject to pretrial incarceration also are more likely to accept an unfavorable plea agreement. That might make the justice system more efficient, but it does not make it better.
Numerous jurisdictions, including the entire states of California and New Jersey, have abolished cash bail altogether as a condition of release. That goes too far for us.
However, mass incarceration is bad for America. Anyone accused of a crime is presumed innocent, and unless they present an imminent danger to the public, they should be released with conditions other than cash bail whenever possible.