Research Sheds Insights into Illinois’ Plan to Eliminate Cash Bail

(Photo: Getty Images)

While the state’s new bail reform law has been temporarily halted by the state Supreme Court, new research suggests that it would correct inequities in the bail system and economically benefit families and communities.

By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
January 19, 2023

On the eve of the New Year, Illinois was poised to become the first state to fully eliminate cash bail. As part of a wider series of reforms known as the SAFE-T Act, enacted in 2021, the Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA) would have replaced the state’s antiquated bail system. Like in many other US jurisdictions, that system overly relies on imposing financial conditions for people to purchase their freedom as they await case resolution and disproportionately harms people of color and those who are economically disadvantaged.

In its place, the law would have given judges three options: release people charged with crimes on their own recognizance; release them but with conditions, such as electronic monitoring; or detain them if they were determined to pose a threat to community safety or flight risk.

However, at the last minute these long-planned reforms were halted. An appeals court stepped in at the 12thhour before their implementation, ruling that lawmakers overstepped their constitutional authority by abolishing cash bail. State officials immediately appealed, and the state Supreme Court temporarily stayed implementation of the PFA pending a final ruling later this year.

While justices determine the future of the law, ongoing studies by researchers at Loyola University Chicago have started to shed light on the reform’s potential impacts.

“Our hypotheses are that for some individuals it will be very beneficial that they won’t suffer even a brief period of pretrial detention that would disrupt their lives,” said Dr. David Olson, co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice at Loyola University Chicago’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. “The question is whether or not their release will allow them to be supported in ways that ultimately addresses their needs or reduces their contact with the system.”

Dr. Don Stemen, professor and chairperson for the  Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, said 85% of people under the current cash bail system already bond out of jail.

Also under the current system, 60% of people detained pretrial are released within seven days.

“So already, most people get out,” Stemen said. “The large majority get out and the large majority don’t stay very long.”

But he added an important caveat: “There are some people who stay a very long time, and that’s because they can’t make low levels of bail.”

And there is an abundance of research showing the harms of ongoing pretrial detention in a person’s life regardless of time spent, which includes losses of employment, eviction/foreclosure, and a greater likelihood of rearrest.

That’s the point of getting rid of cash bail, Stemen explained — simple ability to pay is not why someone should stay in jail pretrial.

“They should be there only if they pose a risk to public safety or they’re a high risk to not show up to court.”

Another important impact of the new bail system is that the money previously extracted from people to purchase release from jail will now remain with individuals and their families and circulate through the local community.

In a study of Cook County, home to Chicago, the Loyola researchers found that people charged with crimes paid $31 million over a six-month period to bond out of jail. Under the reforms, that money would instead stay within those communities, where it could be used to buy food, clothing, schoolbooks, cars, and homes, or start businesses, all of which creates an economic multiplier effect that could improve historically disinvested communities. It would also free-up up financial resources that people could use to pay for their defense, reducing the likelihood of unjust convictions and unnecessary guilty pleas.

Statewide, Stemen estimates that those who are charged with crimes, or more likely, their family and friends, would avoid having to post around $120 million per year under bail reform.

Supported by the National Institute of Justice and a number of foundations, the researchers’ work is ongoing for the next three years and they’ll continue analyzing how the reforms are implemented — if a when the state Supreme Court clears the path — and their impacts on the system.

“Under the new bail laws, we’ll be able to better understand how that money is staying in those communities and its impacts on people who no longer have to pay large sums of money to be released from jail,” Stemen said.

[Read more: Illinois becomes first state to abolish cash bail: ‘This is a monumental step in the right direction’]

There could be unintended consequences to the reforms, however, Olson noted.

People who were originally eligible for release under the cash bail system and wouldn’t have reoffended could be denied bail outright under the new bail laws if a judge rules they’re a public safety threat or flight risk.

“Our goal is to take the information we’ve gathered and provide feedback to stakeholders about our findings,” Olson said. “And that might be inconsistent with their expectations, but it’ll give a better understanding of how the system is operating.”