Illinois’ Pretrial Fairness Act, which abolishes cash bail as a condition of pretrial release, will take effect Sept. 18, making Illinois the first state to end cash bail and become a testing ground for whether, and how, it works on a large scale, the Associated Press reports. Judges can still keep people accused of serious crimes behind bars pretrial but first must go through a more rigorous review of each case. Critics say cash bail policies are especially unfair to Black people and other people of color. A 2022 federal civil rights report on cash bail systems found that courts tend to impose higher pretrial detention penalties on Black and Latino people, citing a study that showed Black men received bail amounts 35% higher than white men, and Latino men received bail amounts 19% higher than white men. Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. described Illinois’ previous cash bail system as “a cousin to slavery.” He said, “The vast majority of people in the system are poor, and they’re Black and brown, and they have no power. It is an incredibly unfair system. You go to a bond hearing, it sounds like a slave auction. People are talking very fast. They’re putting price tags on people’s freedom.”
Typically in state courts, a judge decides if defendants pose too much of a threat to the community to be released, or if they can be freed with conditions, says the nonprofit Bail Project. Illinois Senate minority leader John Curran, a Republican representing suburbs southwest of Chicago, said he’s not opposed to changing the system but wants judges to retain more power than Illinois’ new law grants. The loudest opposition to the change in Illinois has come from law enforcement. “I think we’ll be searching for a lot of people” because defendants who don’t post bond have no incentive to return to court," said Jim Kaitschuk of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association. Although setting people free before trial will become the default in Illinois, there will still be cases that warrant detention, including for those accused of violent or sexual offenses or facing charges involving a gun, says public defender Mitchell. In such cases, the judge must weigh several factors in deciding whether to keep someone jailed, including evidence, previous convictions, and whether that person is a flight risk. “It won’t make the system perfect for everybody. But what it will do, we think, is puts us in a better position to make a more thoughtful decision,” Mitchell said.