Illinois lawmaker seeks to end cash bonds


Courtesy of the Office of State Representative Christian Mitchell

David Fishman, Assistant City Editor

A state representative from Chicago introduced legislation to the Illinois House on Friday that would eliminate cash bail in the state.

The bill would also allow people charged with nonviolent crimes to be released under a promise that they show up in court and would provide pretrial support to ensure those charged make it there. However, the bill would still permit judges to detain or electronically track defendants deemed too dangerous for unconditional release.

“There’s a coalition of folks in my district who think that the way we currently do jail is pretty silly,” state Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) said. “You’ve got folks primarily who are in there not because they pose a risk to society pending their trial, but because they’re poor. That doesn’t make much sense; it’s not keeping us safer.”

Mitchell said 95 percent of people held in Cook County jails were awaiting trial and 62 percent could not pay their money bonds. It costs at least $150 per day to hold prisoners, making pretrial detention a “terrible waste” of taxpayer resources, he said.

Prof. Alexa Van Brunt, a lawyer at the MacArthur Justice Center at the Pritzker School of Law, said she applauds the new legislation, but that it does not go far enough.

“Any real reform needs to include a presumption of release for all people,” she said. “When you eliminate cash bonds altogether and only create a presumption of release for a certain segment of offensives, then … a large segment could just be detained full stop.”

Last fall, Van Brunt and other lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart and several judges over “excessive” bail. The lawsuit claimed the current bail system is unconstitutional because it “disproportionately affects African Americans.”

Sam Randall, director of communications for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, said Dart supported the effort to eliminate cash bonds, but filed to dismiss the case because “there’s no lawful basis for it being filed against us.” Nevertheless, Van Brunt said she would submit an objection to the motion to dismiss by March 10.

“Since November of last year, Sheriff Dart has led the conversation around the need to eliminate cash bail in Illinois,” Randall said in a statement. “The cash bail system as we know it now is broken — keeping poor people incarcerated, while those who are potentially more dangerous to society, but have access to cash … go free.”

Van Brunt pointed to the criminal justice system in Washington, D.C., as a model for reform. The district does not use cash bonds, she said, but people still usually return to court with help from pretrial services.

“D.C. is an urban area — they have a lot of crime — yet they have very high return rates,” she said. “People go to court. It’s really been wildly successful.”

In Illinois, Mitchell said the “time is ripe” for bail reform but that he didn’t want to make a “bold guarantee” about its success in the General Assembly. He added the bill would likely undergo negotiation and modification before it becomes law.

“We’ve got a burgeoning prison population, many of them nonviolent offenders,” Mitchell said. “Despite the budget impasse, there’s been real bipartisan movement on criminal justice issues, and I think (bail reform) has the chance to be one of them this coming year.”

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