Backers hope IL ‘no cash bail’ makes justice equitable, less expensive


A set of controversial reforms to Illinois’ cash bail system went into effect this week, changing a decades-old system of holding people in jail until their trial begins when they can’t afford to pay bail. Backers of the change hope it will eliminate a hardship which has fallen primarily on marginalized communities. Social justice groups, some elected officials and others have hailed the Pretrial Fairness Act as a breakthrough. Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, president of the Senate, said it should help thousands of people who often lost their jobs, housing and even custody of children because they couldn’t afford bail.

“Risk-based detention takes effect, people who — I will remind you, are considered innocent in the eyes of the law — will now forfeit their freedom based on the threat they pose,” Harmon explained. “They will not forfeit their freedom because they lack the cash to buy it.”

Opponents of the act, including prosecutors and other law enforcement officials, warned it could put dangerous criminals back on the street. The new law gives judges more latitude to look at a suspect’s background and other factors to consider their likelihood of committing more crimes if they return to the community. Implementation of the act was delayed several months by a court challenge, which was recently resolved. Under the previous system, thousands of people faced financial and family consequences when they could not afford to pay for their release from jail. Rep. Chris Welch, D-Westchester, Speaker of the House, predicted the measure will help keep families together.

“Today is the day that we stop criminalizing poverty,” Welch emphasized. “Today is the day we end a system that keeps you in jail solely because you lack resources.”

The Pretrial Fairness Act is part of a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms approved by the Illinois General Assembly in 2021. The law contains a number of changes affecting policing and the court system, including pretrial detention and bail, sentencing and corrections.

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