There’s no doubt where the law enforcement community stands on efforts to eliminate cash bail in Illinois. Whether that ground is solid footing remains debatable.
“We’re here to say we cannot, and unequivocally do not, support efforts being discussed to eliminate cash bail,” Illinois Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk said during a March 2 news conference. “This is not the way to make the criminal justice system more equitable. It is not the way to make our communities safer.”
Kaitschuk spoke not just for the sheriffs’ group. Joining him in announcing the formation of a Coalition for Public Safety were members of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, IFOP Labor Council, Chicago Lodge 7 FOP, Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
There’s strength in numbers, sure, but successfully opposing reform requires more than just saying “this is not the way.” Especially when something as practical as eliminating cash bail is explicitly designed with equity in mind.
The bail system is designed to make sure people arrested for crimes 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 the picture 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 their freedom. They risk their employment, their stable housing and their support networks. It’s not difficult to envision how this begins to perpetuate a downward cycle.
Is that equitable? Does it make our communities safer? The newly formed Coalition for Public Safety seems to think the answer to those questions is yes. But that group may want to check with a five-year-old nationwide group with the same name. Counting as its partners organizations as distinct as the American Conservative Union Foundation, the Center for American Progress, Americans for Tax Reform and the NAACP, the original Coalition for Public Safety strives for a “fairer, more effective and efficient justice system” and is actively working to eliminate cash bail.
On its website, coalitionforpublicsafety.org, the group calls for promoting “the use of transparent, validated and nondiscriminatory risk-based solutions to replace pure money bail systems that discriminate against the poor and fail to provide adequate public safety return.” It also wants to “expand conditions of release to include proven methods of ensuring court appearances, such as check-ins and ankle monitoring.”
Illinois is moving in that direction. Under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2017, lawmakers approved changing the rules so people charged with most nonviolent crimes don’t have to post cash bail, according to Capitol News Illinois. Tools such as electronic monitoring or house arrest are a more efficient use of taxpayer resources and don’t discriminate based on a person’s ability to pay.
It’s impossible to argue an accused party is less of a danger to the public based on the size of their bank account. If the arrested party is believed to be violent or a true flight risk, they shouldn’t be released regardless of the check they can cut. But offering freedom only to those who can afford it in the moment is not only arbitrary but actively erects hurdles for the accused poor hoping to remain productive members of society.
In case it bears repeating, we’re talking about people who are innocent under the eyes of the law.
(Side note for constitutional scholars: the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” does not appear in the Bill of Rights, but it is a well-established precedent thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Coffin v. United States, decided 125 years ago last week. A relevant passage from that opinion reads: “The law presumes that persons charged with crime are innocent until they are proven by competent evidence to be guilty… and this presumption stands as their sufficient protection unless it has been removed by evidence proving their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”)
The people in Kaitschuk’s coalition seem to prefer a system under which the accused are jailed. They’re certainly concerned current Gov. JB Pritzker will follow through on a campaign promise to take bail reform farther than Rauner, though no such legislation has been introduced.
The actual Coalition for Public Safety is a true bipartisan reform movement, one Illinois’ lawmakers would do well to consult if they sincerely desire meaningful changes.
SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.