Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker smiled proudly as he signed into a law legislation that made his state the first to abolish cash bail.
Pritzker, a Democrat leading an overwhelming Democratic state, stood before reporters at a signing ceremony in February and declared, “This legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state, our nation, and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness, and true justice.”
The passage of House Bill 3653 is a win for the state’s advocates pushing criminal justice reform at a time when public outcry has pleaded for such changes following the killings of Black people by police officers nationwide.
The new law, known as the SAFE-T Act, requires all police officers wear body cameras by 2025, creates a system that tracks police misconduct, and allows for decertifying officers. However, advocates say that the bill’s elimination of cash bail by January 2023 is the change that will affect the most people.
For decades, Illinois, like so many other states, relied on an unjust, wealth-based system that required people to pay a cash bond in order to secure their freedom before trial. The result: Millions of people not yet convicted of a crime were jailed simply because they didn’t have the money. The system largely affected people living in or near poverty and communities of color.
“This is a monumental step in the right direction,” said Garien Gatewood, the director of the Illinois Justice Project. “Far too often people’s lives come to an abrupt stop because they can’t pay bail. Who does that benefit? A wealth-based system does not increase public safety; economic upward mobility and opportunities do.”
Citing Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr., an outspoken supporter of the legislation, Gatewood said, “Over the years the bond system was fueled by Black and brown women having to make difficult choices between rent, utilities, food or freedom for their loved one. That practice was wrong then, and this reform can change that.”
Prior to the reform, Illinois on average jailed nearly 270,000 people who were awaiting trial per year, according to a 2018 study by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
The Pretrial Fairness Act, part of the sweeping reform signed by Gov. Pritzker, largely eliminates the state’s cash bail system by January 2023—a two-year rollout plan that gives both counties and judges time to understand and implement the law.
“The pretrial reform act can be the standard for pretrial reform in the country,” Gatewood said.
The effort was led by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, an organization that focuses on improving the lives of the state’s Black citizens through criminal justice reforms, health and welfare, and education. Chairwoman Kimberly Lightford said the Caucus gathered last July, weeks after Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. Floyd’s murder sparked protests calling for police reform and racial justice nationwide.
Lightford said she saw the moment as a reckoning that could create real change. Through months of hearings and testimony from policy experts on systemic racism, Lightford said the Caucus drafted legislation that largely focused on criminal justice reform, police accountability, and issues that would improve the lives of the Black people of Illinois.
The legislation was introduced to the state’s General Assembly in January and was passed in the final hours of the session. Gov. Pritzker signed it into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University on Feb. 22, surrounded by members of the Caucus.
“The tragedies of this last year could have just beaten us down, left us hopeless and defeated,” Lightford said. “But we did not let it. We leveraged it to create real change, to create a better future for our children and grandchildren.”
Critics of the Pretrial Fairness Act contend that the sweeping reforms will harm communities and those sworn to protect and serve, some going as far as saying the legislation is “anti-police.”
Gatewood, with the Illinois Justice Project, and others refute those claims, calling it fear mongering in the name of public safety.
People jailed pretrial who can’t afford their bail often see their lives unravel in a matter of days. Studies have shown the longer a person is housed pretrial, the more likely they are to lose housing or their jobs, which, in turn, negatively affects community safety.
“Public safety has constantly been used as a buzzword by law enforcement and opposition to discourage reform,” Gatewood said. “I’d ask what is public safety for all, not public safety based solely on race, geography, and other factors. We should not have a wealth-based system, plain and simple, that has never increased public safety.”