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'The Status Quo Has Sold Us Short': Why Illinois' AG Supports Abolishing Cash Bail

A bail bonds sign hangs on the side of a bail bonds business. (Kathy Willens/AP)
A bail bonds sign hangs on the side of a bail bonds business. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Illinois is on the verge of becoming the first state to abolish cash bail after lawmakers passed a bevy of criminal justice reforms earlier this month.

Proponents of that change say House Bill 3653, written by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, will help end the criminalization of poverty. Specifically, it will halt the practice of jailing people accused of non-violent crimes until their trial because they cannot afford bail. But many prosecutors and members of law enforcement agencies say it will put the public at risk.

Both the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives have approved the bill, but it awaits the signature of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul says the bill is part of a larger push to be fair and just to “people who are assumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Cook County Department of Corrections — a jail that sits in the state’s largest county — has a history of being overpopulated with people who could not afford their bonds, Raoul explains.

“Our system should not be formulated in a way that holds people simply because they can’t afford the bond set,” he says. “It should be based on risks to the public safety.”

Bonds, which are set by judges, vary on a case-by-case basis. Even the smallest bond, about $100, he says, can be challenging for some people to come up with. However, folks with easy access to money, such as a big-time drug dealer, often can post bond even if they are deemed a public safety risk, Raoul says.

“Meanwhile, you can have somebody who might be in on a minor retail theft who can’t afford $100,” he says, “and they’re held historically longer than they would be sentenced for the offense that they were charged with.”

Critics argue offenders should not be on the streets while awaiting trial. They’ve also voiced concern that defendants may not show up for court.

HB 3653 contains measures that require a judge to consider all aspects of the case, he says, including the evidence at hand and the nature and circumstances of the offense.

“A judge can hold somebody based on those identifiable risks,” Raoul says.

The proposed law will also make it easier to discipline police officers and allow for anonymous complaints against them. It would also require every Illinois officer to wear a body camera by 2025.

Ed Wojcicki with the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police told NBC 5 in Chicago that the law would “make it more difficult for us to apprehend criminals.”

In response, Raoul says the comprehensive bill has many components to it that most people can agree on, one of them being a more vigorous police decertification system, something he worked on alongside Wojcicki and state police chiefs, he says.

Before the bill, decertifying a police officer required a felony conviction or a serious or sex-related misdemeanor, but the new law would “provide more discretion,” he says. It’s something that would help build more public trust in law enforcement, he says.

Raoul understands that not everyone in law enforcement will be on board with this law, and says revisions to its language are inevitable. No matter where the jurisdiction, he says controversy happens when such a major change is on the horizon.

“Change is controversial. Reform is controversial because people are so accustomed to the status quo,” he says, “but the status quo has sold us short.”


Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.