Robert Martwick: Ending money bond won’t be the doomsday some are predicting

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In recent weeks, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow has made some doomsday predictions about the implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act, a law that ends Illinois’ use of money bond beginning in January. Glasgow has insinuated that on Jan. 1, the doors to Illinois’ jails will swing open and our communities will be in danger. Not only are these statements false, but they also ignore one of the legislation’s primary goals: improving community safety.

Today, the primary factor determining whether a person is jailed or released pretrial isn’t the facts of the case or even the safety of community members; it’s the size of a person’s bank account. Under the current system, many people who pose a danger to someone in the community are able to buy their way out of jail if they have the money; meanwhile, others who pose no danger to anyone languish in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay bond. The Pretrial Fairness Act fixes this by ensuring that facts and not finances are the main factor determining who is jailed and who is released pretrial.

By focusing on the risk an individual may pose to another person’s safety — and not their financial means — the Pretrial Fairness Act ensures that the safety of our communities is the central factor in a judge’s decision on whether to release someone pretrial.

Critically, the law requires a more robust pretrial hearing when these decisions are made, ensuring judges spend longer considering each case. Prosecutors and judges should be asked to meet a very high standard if they are going to incarcerate someone who is presumed innocent before trial. At present, bond decisions are made in just a few minutes, which does not give attorneys adequate time to make arguments or judges the necessary time to thoroughly evaluate each case.

These are just a few of the reasons I stood with my colleagues in the Illinois legislature and voted in support of the SAFE-T Act, the criminal justice omnibus bill that includes the Pretrial Fairness Act. It’s also why these reforms are supported by many of the leading organizations in our state that work to prevent domestic and sexual violence, groups that also played a role in drafting the legislation, precisely to ensure that it prioritizes the safety of crime victims.

To build safe communities, we must be smart on crime, not simply tough on those who’ve been accused of committing them. Public safety policies must be data-driven; otherwise, we run the risk of needlessly incarcerating people awaiting trial and making our neighborhoods less safe. Currently, our state is unnecessarily locking people for months and sometimes years because they can’t afford one of our most basic rights: the presumption of innocence. By reducing pretrial jailing, we can free up resources to invest in the things that build safe communities such as schools, affordable housing and jobs programs.

When a person is jailed pretrial, they are likely to lose their home and job. They also lose access to any government benefits they were receiving. These factors make it more likely for a person to be rearrested in the future. Research has shown that just a few days of pretrial jailing can increase the likelihood that someone will be arrested again in the future. If we’re going to take away a person’s liberty, we must make sure we’re doing it to protect someone in our community, not because the defendant is poor. By ensuring that only those who pose a risk to public safety are jailed, we are building safer communities.

Although critics are acting like we are swimming in uncharted waters, Illinois is not alone in making this change: The federal system and our nation’s capital have operated without money bond for decades. New Jersey virtually eliminated money bond in 2017 and has seen almost no increase in the percentage of people released pretrial who were arrested for new crimes and in fact saw a decrease in overall crime.

Our state Supreme Court is working with counties across Illinois to ensure a successful transition to this new system. In November and December, courts will be reevaluating cases under the new law to determine what happens to people currently incarcerated in our state’s jails on Jan. 1. Drumming up fear that dangerous criminals are about to flood out of jails or that the courts won’t have the tools to keep our communities safe isn’t only false; it’s ignoring the hard work being done by judges, prosecutors, public defenders and legislators to ensure a successful transition.

It’s time to drop the sensational rhetoric and focus on the work ahead. By working together, we can show the nation that we can prioritize protecting people’s rights and our collective public safety.

State Sen. Robert Martwick, a Democrat from Chicago, represents Illinois’ 10th District.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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September 8, 2022 at 06:07PM

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