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Opinion

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Slowly but surely, state making progress on cash bail reform

Cash bail reform proponents might see the tiniest sliver of hope in how the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association is responding to their efforts.

“We cannot, and unequivocally do not, support efforts being discussed to eliminate cash bail,” ISA Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk said March 2. “This is not the way to make the criminal justice system more equitable. It is not the way to make our communities safer.”

Seven months later – a week ago today – Wayne County Sheriff Mike Everett testified on the ISA’s behalf at a joint hearing of the Senate Criminal Law Committee and the Special Committee on Public Safety. He wasn’t exactly warm to reform, but he seemingly understood the root issue.

The bail system is designed to make sure arrestees show up for court appearances without having to be detained in a county lockup. By posting bail, the accused have a financial stake in the matter but get to go home, continue working, retain family connections and secure competent legal representation.

The inequity enters with a simple question: What happens when someone doesn’t have the money for bail? They stay in jail. From inside, they can’t earn the money to buy freedom. They risk their employment, stable housing and support networks. It’s not difficult to envision how this begins to perpetuate a downward cycle.

“I’m not here to tell you we believe that the system should create financial constraints that are unachievable for people,” Everett said, according to a Capitol News Illinois report on the hearing. “But we do believe that there needs to be some form of accountability and we would argue a financial system helps support that accountability.”

And that’s the sliver: The ISA and other law enforcement groups want the accused to remain accountable but understand unachievable financial constraints might not be essential. There’s significant distance between that and ending cash bail altogether, but the state has been moving in that direction regardless.

Under Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2017, lawmakers approved changing rules so people charged with most nonviolent crimes don’t have to post a cash bail. In January, Gov. JB Pritzker said ending cash bail leads his criminal justice agenda. To that end, state Sen. Robert Peters and Rep. Justin Slaughter, both Chicago Democrats, plan to file the Pretrial Fairness Act.

Electronic monitoring or house arrest more efficiently use taxpayer resources and don’t discriminate based on wealth. It’s impossible to argue an accused party – innocent until proven guilty – is less a public danger based on the size of their bank account.

Government can use different leverage against arrestees, and law enforcement can help establish those parameters.

The ISA and others have a seat at the table. Let’s hope they continue participating in progress.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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