Opinion: Ending money bond in Illinois

Bail Bonds Sign

On January 1, 2023, Illinois officially will become the first state to completely abolish the unfair and archaic practice of jailing people accused of crimes simply because they cannot afford to pay a money bond. The Pretrial Fairness Act was signed into law in early 2021 as part of the SAFE-T Act, a broader package of policing and criminal legal system reforms championed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. This achievement was made possible by the national Black Lives Matter movement in response to police murders of Black people across the country.

Faithfully implementing the Pretrial Fairness Act is critical to making real progress in Illinois toward ending mass incarceration and eradicating racial disparities from our criminal legal system. The Act helps restore the presumption of innocence and reduces the hardship visited upon thousands of people who, under the money bond system, were too often held in jail awaiting trial simply because they lacked money.

Spending even a few days in jail can completely destabilize a person’s life, and when someone is held in custody before their case is heard, they are more likely to be convicted and to receive a longer sentence—and more likely to be rearrested in the future. The Act will make Illinois communities safer by allowing more people to continue working, caring for their families and contributing to society while awaiting trial.

For the two years following the passage of the Pretrial Fairness Act, the law was targeted with constant attacks from opponents in the legislature, the courts and especially in the media. These attacks included a multimillion dollar campaign of disinformation and fearmongering during the midterm election season. Meanwhile, the ACLU and our partners were hard at work educating the public about what the law actually does and working together with court stakeholders, law enforcement, and elected officials from around the state to identify and address practical challenges as courts prepare to implement this transformative change. That work was reflected in legislation passed and signed into law in December 2022, making technical changes that will help ensure successful implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act on schedule.

Today, Illinois can take great pride in having made money bail a relic of the past. This monumental achievement was the result of more than six years of work by people of all walks of life from across our state. But in some ways the work has just begun. Illinois is a large and diverse state with a decentralized court system, and we know it will take time for courts around the state to fully adapt to the new reality. Realizing the full promise of the Pretrial Fairness Act will require our patience and vigilance to ensure that judges and prosecutors comply with the requirements of the new law and avoid backsliding. We also expect opponents of reform to continue their efforts to chip away at the law by disingenuously blaming “bail reform” for every high-profile crime incident, as they have in other states.

Together with our partners in the Coalition to End Money Bond and Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, and our allies and legislative partners, the ACLU of Illinois remains committed to defending and implementing the Pretrial Fairness Act in keeping with its original intent: to reduce racial disparities and decrease pretrial jailing in our state, making Illinois communities stronger and safer.

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