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Illinois becomes first state to end cash bail as part of criminal justice reform law

"This legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state and our nation ... ,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said.
Inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago line up to be processed for release on Sept. 29, 2011.
Inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago line up to be processed for release on Sept. 29, 2011.M. Spencer Green / AP file

CHICAGO — Illinois has set the stage for a significant overhaul of its criminal justice system after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed off on a new law that not only institutes major police reforms, but also makes the state the first in the nation to completely abolish cash bail.

House Bill 3653, which was several years in the making, aims to make sweeping changes to the state’s existing policies on policing and adjudication.

The legislation, which was signed Monday, comes at a critical time as nationwide calls to address racial bias in the justice system have intensified following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May, Pritzker said after signing the law.

“This legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state and our nation and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness and true justice,” he said. "All of this was fueled by the experiences of those who have lived with police brutality and discrimination in this terrible year in the middle of a brutal viral pandemic that hurt Black people and brown people disproportionately.”

The expansive law came together through a massive grassroots mobilization of more than 100 reform organizations, as well as the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, that helmed the law through the state Legislature last month.

“History will judge how we responded in this moment, which called for big, bold, transformative changes,” said Democratic state Sen. Elgie R. Sims Jr., who sponsored the bill. “This is not a moment for incrementalism, but one which calls for us to reimagine what public safety looks like in this great state.”

Among the most notable facets of the law is the abolishment of the cash bail system under the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act, which is a part of HB 3653. The new law eliminates wealth-based detention and instead gives judges a more strictly defined decisionmaking process based on a real risk of present threat or willful flight. This will be rolled out slowly under a two-year plan and will not go fully in effect until 2023, while other parts of the law will go into effect as early as July.

The new system “increases accountability and transparency in law enforcement, modernizes our bail and sentencing systems, and provides for greater protections and more humane treatment of those who have been arrested and accused of crime,” Sims said.

The law also encompasses of some of the most extensive police reforms, including a requirement that all police officers wear body cameras by 2025, a ban on all police chokeholds, new guidelines for "decertification" of police officers, and statewide standards and services for officers to receive regular confidential mental health screenings and assistance.

Under HB 3653, police departments are also prohibited from purchasing certain military equipment, such as firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher and tracked armored vehicles.

Detainee rights have also been expanded to include the right to make three free phone calls within three hours of arrival at the police station and before questioning occurs, and the ability to retrieve phone numbers contained in their cellphone’s contact list prior to the phone being placed in inventory.

But several law enforcement groups and legislators opposed the legislation, citing that the new law will not only do a disservice to officers, but will also diminish public safety.

“The bill unfairly targets officers and attempts to punish them, not just make them accountable,” Ed Wojcicki, the executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said in a statement. “The public will learn more about these flaws when they see for themselves that common-sense tools needed by the police, state’s attorneys, and the courts have been stripped by this law.”

The sentiment was echoed by the several Republican state legislators who said the bill was hastily rushed through a lame-duck session.

“This 700-plus page proposal was rammed through in the middle of the night with just hours left in a lame-duck session without the transparency and discourse expected in a democratic process,” state Sen. John Curran said in a statement, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy said the bill "is willfully undermining public safety - endangering citizens, emboldening criminals, and making Illinois less safe for families,” WMAQ-NBC Chicago reported.

Despite the opposition, several community groups that have worked on the law say the bill culminated over several years and was a long time coming for the state's communities of color.

“The omnibus bill was developed in response to Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in every corner of Illinois and across the nation last summer following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” the Coalition to End Money Bond, which was heavily involved in the bill over several years, said in a statement.

“Legislators saw the unprecedented protests as a mandate to bring sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system. By signing this transformative legislation into law, Governor Pritzker and the Illinois legislature have taken a bold step to advance racial justice in Illinois and stand with the millions of people who took the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.”