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Illinois is the first state to eliminate cash bail in its prison system


Illinois will be the first state to completely eliminate its cash bail system. Under the SAFE-T Act, passed last year, judges across Illinois will not require those charged with a crime to post bail in order to leave jail while they await trial. However, those who are considered to be a threat to the public or likely to flee will be required to stay in jail. The new law will go into effect in September. Now, it was delayed by opponents who argued the new policy would put dangerous criminals on the streets. Sarah Staudt is an attorney with the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice and is the policy and advocacy manager at the Prison Policy Initiative. Sarah, the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police said the elimination of cash bail, quote, "confirms Illinois' status as the state of lawlessness and disorder." So, Sarah, for someone who's concerned about the impact of the new law, what would you tell them?

SARAH STAUDT: Really, in terms of safety, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that there have been numerous national studies that have reviewed the claim that letting more people free pretrial would hurt public safety. And they've all found that there's just no connection between releasing more people pretrial and public safety. It's just not true that people who are released pretrial are causing a danger to our community. What is true is that pretrial jailing can actually increase the likelihood that someone will be rearrested in the future because it destabilizes their lives. They lose their employment, their housing, sometimes custody of their children. So really, jail makes us less safe. We should be using it only when it's absolutely necessary.

MARTÍNEZ: So for the people then that are not in jail awaiting their trial, how will they - how will the courts ensure that they show up for their dates?

STAUDT: Well, courts have lots of options. The first thing to understand is that most people do come back to their court dates and do remain arrest-free pretrial - like, upwards of 80 or 90%. For when the court does have concerns about that, there's all sorts of options at the court's disposal. The easiest is they can give things like text message reminders just to make sure that people know when their court dates are. That's one of the most effective things to do. But there's also things like pretrial services, checking in with an officer to make sure that people are up to date on their court dates and are able to participate in their case.

MARTÍNEZ: But why get rid of bail completely and - or maybe do something like other states, like New York, where they're eliminating bail for certain kinds of crimes?

STAUDT: Well, because bail doesn't work. Money bail has never worked. What money bail does is it says the decision about who's going to be in jail is going to be about how much money is in your pocketbook. It's completely illogical. What we need is what we have now in Illinois, which is a system that actually looks at safety. It actually looks at whether someone poses a danger to another person. And that's the real criteria for who should be in jail and who needs to be free. And that's why victims' rights organizations in Illinois were some of the most - the loudest supporters of this law.

MARTÍNEZ: And will this law, to your understanding, be retroactive? In other words, people that are detained under the old policy - will they get the option to be out now?

STAUDT: Everyone detained under the new policy or everyone detained currently will have a new hearing in front of a judge where a judge will make an individualized decision about whether that person will remain in jail or be released.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Sarah Staudt is an attorney with the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice. Sarah, thank you very much.

STAUDT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.