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Illinois plans to eradicate cash bail statewide


A landmark decision from the Illinois Supreme Court today makes Illinois the first state in the country to totally eliminate cash bail. According to the court's opinion, cash bail will officially end on September 18 of this year. The ruling upholds a law passed by the state's legislature back in 2021. And here with us to explain more is WBEZ's Shannon Heffernan in Chicago. Hi, Shannon.


CHANG: OK, so there has been so much controversy about eliminating cash bail all across the country. Can you just first lay out exactly what this law does?

HEFFERNAN: Right. So with cash bail gone, courts can no longer require people to pay money to leave jail while they await trial. But I want to be really clear - they still can hold people, even if they're - if they're accused of certain crimes or pose a risk to public safety or are likely to flee and try to escape the consequences of their alleged crime.

CHANG: Right.

HEFFERNAN: So while you hear people refer to this as a purge law that lets people just run free, that's not really accurate.

CHANG: OK. Well, cash bail, I know is still used in most states, right? But again, because it's controversial, a few jurisdictions try to avoid it. How did Illinois get to the point of being the first state to eliminate it altogether?

HEFFERNAN: So in 2021, Illinois passed the Safety Act. This was a huge bill that radically reshaped criminal justice in the state. It changed things like the use of force standards for police and reporting for deaths in prison. And one of the big pillars of that legislation was the Pretrial Fairness Act, which ended cash bail. The idea was cash bail punishes the poor and doesn't keep anyone safer. But dozens of sheriffs and prosecutors sued over this law, saying it violated the rights of victims. And that case made its way all the way to the state Supreme Court, where the law went into limbo until today.

CHANG: Until today - well, I understand that some people have raised safety concerns about this law, saying dangerous people are going to be allowed to be on the streets while they await trial. Can you talk more about that argument?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. So groups like the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police have said this will make it harder to control crime. They worry people who should stay in jail will be able to roam the streets. And Chicago does undoubtably have a real issue with gun violence. But it's worth noting the data doesn't clearly support their argument. For example, there was a study that looked at Cook County, which is where Chicago is located, when they drastically reduced their use of cash bail, and it wasn't associated with an increase in violence. I do want to give one big warning here, though. I think it's important whenever we talk about crime data, it can only show us so much, right? Crime data is really noisy data. There's all kinds of factors that can make it go up or down. So any time anyone uses crime data, I have a little bit of skepticism about what it actually proves.

CHANG: Yeah.

HEFFERNAN: Either way, when we're talking about this, it's often framed up as an issue of public safety versus the rights of the accused. But there are a lot of people who actually are arguing that this law is going to make things safer. Some victim groups are speaking out in support of the law, saying it'll allow courts to focus on the most serious crimes.

CHANG: So what will people be watching for specifically, you think, when cash bail ends in the state in September?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, this is really going to reshape how courts work. Prosecutors, for example, have a higher burden to meet. They're going to have to do that faster. They also have new obligations to notify victims. And whether or not you agree with all of that, it's definitely going to take resources on the ground. So I'm curious how they're going to do that, how quickly they're going to be able to do that, especially in some of the smaller counties. I'll also be watching how judges actually implement it, especially in areas of the state where there's resistance. Will they, in reality, actually let people go who the new law says don't meet the standards for being at risk of fleeing or being a danger?

CHANG: That is WBEZ's Shannon Heffernan. Thank you, Shannon.

HEFFERNAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shannon is a criminal justice reporter. She's also reported on mental health, poverty, labor and climate change.

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