Column: Ending cash bail will promote safety and racial equity, experts say

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Ending cash bail in Illinois will better protect victims of domestic violence, make communities safer and address historic racial and economic inequality, authorities and criminal justice experts said Friday during a conference in Chicago.

The daylong summit showed how people promoting fairness and justice are pushing back against lies and misinformation about the Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T Act.

Some right-wing politicians are deliberately spreading lies about what the law does and stoking fears that sheriffs will have to empty jails of accused murders and other violent criminals on New Year’s Day.

The elimination of cash bail are other measures set to begin Jan. 1 as one part of the law, known as the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act, takes effect. The changes, sometimes described as bond reform, have been in the works for years.

“It’s a long process to implement reform,” said Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart. “We’ve had this two-year implementation phase. The process is working.”

“There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes,” Macomb police Chief Jerel Jones said.

Illinois has the advantage of learning from data collected after reforms were adopted in New York, New Jersey and other states, officials said.

“This has happened in other parts of the country and the sky hasn’t fallen down,” said Insha Rahman, vice president of advocacy and partnerships for the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.

David Olson, professor and codirector of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University Chicago, discusses the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act.

David Olson, professor and codirector of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University Chicago, discusses the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act. (Ted Slowik / Chicago Tribune)

Just as in Illinois at the moment, bond reform in New Jersey was politicized when implemented a few years ago, Rahman said. The public is easily duped by political ads that stoke fears about crime, when those fears are largely based on misperceptions, she said.

“People grossly overestimate how likely they are to be a victim of crime,” she said. Surveys showed 15% of respondents believed they were likely to be a victim of robbery, when in reality the figure is about 1%, she said.

“Studies show crime is going down, but people think it’s going up,” Rahman said.

Currently in Illinois, cash bail means people accused of violent offenses can go free while awaiting trail if they can afford to post bail, officials said. At the same time, many suspects accused of theft and other nonviolent offenses spend days or more in jail while family members try to scrape together bail money.

“Today, if you can pay your bond in a first-degree murder case you can go home,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. “People charged with violent offenses are able to write checks and get out.”

When reforms take effect in about 11 weeks, judges will consider two main factors when deciding whether to order someone held in custody while awaiting trial, said David Olson, professor and co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University Chicago.

“The two categories are, are they dangerous, and are they a risk for willful flight,” Olsen said.

The reforms address long-standing inequities in the criminal justice system, said Lanetta Haynes Turner, chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

“One of our foundational principles is equal justice for all,” she said. “This is a noble principle but in reality we have failed to reach it.”

Preckwinkle was scheduled to speak but was unable to attend, she said. Haynes Turner read Preckwinkle’s prepared remarks about how people detained for nonviolent offenses are separated from families and risk losing employment, education, housing and other opportunities all before being found guilty of any crime.

“Presumption of innocence is another foundational principle,” she said. “Jail incarceration is serious. Research shows even a few days in jail is destabilizing.”

The sad reality is that more people are likely to believe a 30-second political ad on TV than the life’s work of a researcher who has spent her career studying inequities in the criminal justice system.

Illinois Justice Project director Garien Greenwood, from left, Sharlyn Grace of the Cook County public defender's office, Macomb police Chief Jerel Jones and Amanda Pyron of The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, discuss the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act Friday in Chicago.

Illinois Justice Project director Garien Greenwood, from left, Sharlyn Grace of the Cook County public defender’s office, Macomb police Chief Jerel Jones and Amanda Pyron of The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, discuss the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act Friday in Chicago. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

State Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, was among the more passionate panelists Friday.

“In Illinois, money bond prioritizes access to wealth over public safety,” Peters said. “Cash bail ends up being as tax on poor communities. It deprives families of money they need to pay rent and other bills.”

Among the reforms, the legislation requires county state’s attorneys to notify crime victims about changes in a criminal suspect’s custody status. That creates extra work for prosecutors, who have been largely critical of the bill.

Another new requirement is that instead of a perfunctory bond hearing, prosecutors have to present a case to a judge within 48 hours of a suspect’s detention about why an individual presumed innocent should be held behind bars.

“We are charged with no longer doing the easy thing,” said Era Laudermilk, chief of staff for the Cook County public defender’s office.

Jurisdictions that have adopted cash bail reforms have typically seen the average daily jail populations drop by about half with virtually no increase in incidents of violent crimes by suspects awaiting trial, officials said.

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“Bail reform and public safety can coexist,” Rahman said.

In New Jersey, public opinion about bond reform shifted about two years after changes were adopted, she said.

“Backlash was at a fever pitch when the law first took effect,” she said. “Finally data came out and the heat went down.”

Blacks and Hispanics account for a disproportionate percentage of detainees, officials said. The Pretrial Fairness Act and SAFE-T Act address those inequities.

“We have severe racial and economic injustices in the system that aren’t making anyone safer,” Peters said. “We need a fundamental shift.”

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

tslowik@tribpub.com

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October 14, 2022 at 08:38PM

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