This month, a new law went into effect in Illinois, and with it comes a major change to the state’s criminal justice system.
The Pretrial Fairness Act, which went into effect Sept. 18 ends the practice of cash bail for pretrial release. This means that thousands of people who have been charged with a crime can be allowed to go home before their trials without having to first secure bail.
Years of criticism
The new law comes after years of criticism of the cash bail systems in Illinois and other states.
In theory, the U.S. Constitution guarantees every defendant the right to a speedy trial and holds that no one shall be deprived of their liberty without due process. However, many arrestees are kept in jail before their trial dates. In many cases, these trial dates are set for weeks or months in the future, or even longer.
In order to secure their release, these defendants must provide bail money. Some defendants do this by taking out enormous loans — often at high rates of interest. Many can’t get the loans or can’t afford to pay them back, and so they’re stuck behind bars waiting for their trials.
Critics say Illinois’ old system was unfair to defendants from disadvantaged backgrounds and was used disproportionately against people of color. There are many horror stories about people who were accused of relatively low-level crimes and had to spend months behind bars while they waited for trial. Many such defendants were eventually found not guilty and freed, but suffered irreparable harm to their personal and professional lives.
The new system
Under the new system, defendants accused of nonviolent crimes, such as many drug related crimes, can be set free before their trial dates. Those accused of violent offenses, sexual offenses or offenses involving a gun may have to remain behind bars before trial. In these cases, a judge decides whether to keep the defendants by assessing risk factors, such as the presence of any prior convictions and the chance they might flee the state.
Illinois is one of the first states in the country to eliminate cash bail. No doubt, law enforcement, lawmakers, attorneys and many others will be watching closely to see what effects the new law will have on the state’s criminal justice system. But the immediate effect may be a huge burden off the backs of thousands of Illinois residents who have been accused of crimes.