While the future of cash bail is pending before the Illinois Supreme Court, we’re running a community-based program to help people break the cycle of arrest and jail. And we’re exploring ways to expand our work across the state.
We believe in community support so much that we invested $2.9 million last year to connect people to services that build productive lives. Our program focuses on helping people during the pretrial phase of their case – meaning they are legally presumed innocent and have not yet been convicted of a crime.
How do we know what they need? We walk into Chicago’s Cook County Jail every weekday and listen.
Then we create a support plan based on their needs.
From April through November last year, 1,292 people chose to work with us. They identified an average of five needs for the following social supports: employment, education, affordable housing, health insurance, state identification, physical health care, mental health care and addiction treatment.
This means a typical client may be unemployed in an unstable home environment while they’re also struggling with mental trauma and physical ailments. Picture that reality the next time you wonder what can cause crime. Ask yourself what life would look like if your mind and body experienced pain every day when you don’t have a job, a stable home, health insurance or a driver’s license. Add an addiction to alcohol or drugs, and it’s a predictable path to harm.
This doesn’t mean everybody is guilty of the charges they face. For 440 of our clients whose cases have already concluded, charges were dropped in 367 cases. That means eight out of 10 of these clients had cases that lacked evidence to prosecute, or they are innocent and should have never been arrested and jailed.
And almost all of the 1,292 people did exactly what they’re supposed to do as they awaited trial in the community: They attended 96% of their court dates. That tells us that we don’t need cash bail to ensure that people will show up to court. We also provide court-date notifications and free courthouse transportation to those who need it.
This program – Community Release with Support – was designed and tested by The Bail Project in more than 25 jurisdictions. It works because the simple act of providing freedom and choice helps people gain control over a mindset that struggles to see a positive future. From there, they commit to self-improvement that generates positive feedback that leads to positive actions.
And our clients develop a better understanding of the harm they’ve experienced and might have caused. They’re accountable, to themselves and others, because they’re doing the hard work to change their lives.
This work is violence prevention. The structure we create in an individual’s life can lead to safety for everybody. It’s a path forward, instead of an arrest-jail cycle to nowhere.
We support the end of cash bail because it makes Illinois a leader in pretrial fairness in the United States. The right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise should never be a question of money. This doesn’t mean detention before trial is never warranted. It means nobody should be locked up for simply being poor.
We’re focusing this year on finding partners throughout Illinois who want to work with us. The discussions we’ve had so far have been encouraging, as more people are starting to see holistic social support as a key component of public safety in our state.
For anybody who wants our help, we’re here to listen.
Amy Campanelli is Vice President of Restorative Justice at Lawndale Christian Legal Center in Chicago and the former Cook County Public Defender. Contact her at
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February 16, 2023 at 09:00AM