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Most people in the U.S. who are being held in jail have not been convicted of a crime. Instead, they are awaiting trial. For some, that wait can take weeks or even years if they can't afford to pay a cash bail to be released. That practice is controversial. While a few states have taken steps to change their cash bail system, Illinois will become the first to ditch it entirely. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Critics of cash bail have a name for it. They call it the poor people's tax, leaving those who can't come up with the money for bail stuck in jail while they wait for their case to be heard. Fifty-seven-year-old Flonard Wrencher says he knows all about that.
FLONARD WRENCHER: It was a few years ago. I went to jail, and I couldn't get out. I couldn't get out because I couldn't afford to pay 7,500 bucks. I couldn't afford to pay that.
CORLEY: Wrencher says he spent several months in jail before he was released with the help of a bail reform group, the Chicago Community Bond Fund. That scenario would no longer exist under the sweeping criminal justice overhaul for the state that was recently passed. It was sponsored by a caucus of Black Illinois lawmakers.
JUSTIN SLAUGHTER: This was a personal endeavor for us.
CORLEY: State Representative Justin Slaughter says the death of George Floyd and others, along with the summer protests and marches over policing and racial and social justice, galvanized the Black Caucus. It was time, says Slaughter, for lawmakers to change a policy that's had a disproportionately negative impact on people of color, forcing many to remain in jail or, in some cases, accept plea deals as a way to get out. And in what Slaughter says was an emotional week, lawmakers narrowly approved a package of bills that included the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act. It eliminates bail, and that's a step that activists across the country call key to criminal justice reform.
SLAUGHTER: Members felt that they were taking a vote for history. And they felt they needed to collaborate with us to go from protests to progress.
CORLEY: Slaughter says the next step is figuring out which risk assessment tools judges will use to determine whether a person is a threat to public safety or not likely to show up in court and should not be released. There have been other efforts to get rid of cash bail. Washington, D.C., was an early pioneer. It eliminated bail in most instances in the 1990s. Cash bail is rarely used in New Jersey.
And there's also been pushback. Bail reforms in Alaska and New York were rolled back or amended. In California, a ballot measure kept cash bail intact. In Illinois, there was strong opposition from the Illinois Law Enforcement Coalition, a group of police unions and organizations representing police officers and county sheriffs.
JIM KAITSCHUK: You seldom see people sitting in jail for low-level crimes just because they can't make bail.
CORLEY: Jim Kaitschuk is the executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs' Association.
KAITSCHUK: It's amazing how people can find the money to get themselves out. The second thing is they have an opportunity where they may very well very quickly go back in front of the judge, like the next day in some cases, and the judge may say, OK, I'm going to go ahead and waive your bail, let's release you on your own recognizance. That happens all the time.
SHARONE MITCHELL: That's flat-out wrong.
CORLEY: That's Sharone Mitchell, the head of the Illinois Justice Project and part of a coalition which helped draft the Illinois bill. He says pre-COVID-19, there were thousands still detained in the state because they couldn't afford bail. But whether people languish in jail is not the Law Enforcement Coalition's only argument. The group says communities will be less safe; that criminals released on bail will be running free, possibly committing new crimes; and that counties across the state don't have the finances for electronic monitors, staff and other items that might be needed as people are released from jail before trial. Mitchell says he respects law enforcement, but their analysis is wrong.
MITCHELL: In the policy context, they oppose, essentially, any and every significant proposal to change. And for people like me, we understand that reform is not a direct trade-off with safety and I think understand that the current system is completely broken.
CORLEY: He and other activists point to studies of bail reform in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, which show little difference in crime rates and only small increases in people failing to show up for court. The Illinois bail reform legislation would not go into effect for a couple of years, until January 2023. That may be enough time for supporters and opponents of the Illinois bail law to iron out the challenges that come with such a monumental change.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.