Overpoliced communities are especially hurt by current pretrial practices.

-Jamila Dawn Mitchell

by Jamila Dawn Mitchell 

Every year, 90% of the 250,000 people held in Illinois jails are incarcerated pretrial, prior to actual convictions, putting the rate of pretrial incarceration far above the national average of 67%. The percentage of pretrial detentions range county to county – with 51% of the jail population in Tazewell County and 100% in Calhoun County in 2016. 

A major cause of these high rates of pretrial detention is the cash bond system. These cash bonds primarily impact people living in poverty, as the average defendant only had an income of $7,000 the prior year, according to a 2018 study by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA). Most individuals simply cannot afford to pay for their release, and this injustice has sparked a new movement within criminal justice to end cash bonds across Illinois.

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On July 13th, Illinois’ criminal justice advocates came together under the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice (INPJ) for the “The People’s Convening on Pretrial Freedom.” Hosted by the Coalition to End Money Bond, the event featured strategy workshops and speeches from individuals that directly experienced Illinois’ pretrial pay-or-stay incarceration system. Kristi Sanford, the Communications Director for The People’s Lobby, explained that this event was the first for pretrial reform advocates, a full room of people from north of Chicago to southern Illinois nearing St. Louis, Missouri.

“It was a gathering of folks statewide who want to impact the [pretrial detention] policy, not just in Cook County where we are based, but throughout all of Illinois,” Sanford explained. “It goes to show how widespread the problem is. The reforms that have been won in Cook County are very important, but we want to enshrine those reforms at the state level so that they are safe and lasting.”

Ben Ruddell, the Criminal Justice Policy Director for the ACLU Illinois, explained why the ACLU Illinois and the Coalition to End Money Bond want Illinois to get rid of cash bonds – “The access to wealth ultimately determines whether the person is jailed or free.” The Coalition to End Money Bond, a group of thirteen organizations committed to cash bonds ending in Illinois, has provided a platform for people that have been affected by cash bonds and pretrial incarceration to speak out. 

Due to an inability to pay even the minimum cash bond amount for release, persons in poverty often stay longer in jail before trial, and reports have shown that the length of pretrial detention significantly increases the possibility that someone will commit new crimes. Pretrial incarcerations can tangibly change the lives of people detained. Campaign coordinator, Ruby Pinto, explained the stories behind the urgency to ban cash bonds:

“You really see how quickly even one day in jail negatively impacts your life: you can lose your job really quickly, beyond that you can lose access to housing, you can have your children taken away. And if you spend more than a month in jail, public benefits are interrupted. So, for those that are dealing with disabilities, mental health needs or chronic illness are especially harmed. But, we believe everyone is harmed by spending time in jail.”

Pretrial incarceration often causes detained persons to lose their jobs, impacts their housing situation, and can lead to separation from their families and psychological trauma. Criminal justice advocates are concerned with the severity to which pretrial detentions, especially in lieu of cash bond obligations, lead to pressures for people to plead guilty when they originally may not have. 

According to Ruddell, people can spend years in pretrial detention awaiting trial due to an overburdened court system in Cook County. “We know that the outcomes for people who are detained pretrial after an arrest are almost uniformly worse,” he stated. “So, people who are detained pretrial as opposed to being released are more likely to be convicted of a crime, more likely to be convicted of a more serious crime, more likely to be sentenced to a more serious sentence and service time in prison. The connections between being detained and those negative outcomes are pretty direct.”

The longer someone is detained before trial can lead to a desperate guilty plea deal under the influence of prosecutors. In 2015, innocent people that entered guilty pleas made up nearly 15% of the nation’s exoneration cases. Yet, legal advocates such as The Innocence Project that focuses on DNA exoneration cases across the country have observed over 95% of felony cases end with plea deals where defendants were greatly disadvantaged. Advocates are concerned with the racial disparities and observe trends with what communities are most affected by pretrial incarceration. 

In Cook County Illinois, according to Pinto, African Americans are 25% of the population of Cook County and, yet, make up 75% of the county’s prison population. “We know who is being targeted,” he said. “We also know that essentially folks who are arrested then placed in jail because of an unaffordable money bond are destabilized by time spent in Jail. And we know for a fact that recidivism is increased by the time spent in jail.”

Cash bonds produce revenue for the jail system. Unlike most states in the US, Illinois prohibits private bail bond companies. However, state law allows for the courts to retain a portion of the cash bonds paid regardless of the results of a trial. Outside of Cook County, the courts generally collect 10% of cash bonds collected. In Cook County, the Clerk of Courts has a limit of approximately $100 from a cash bond. 

“In a very real way the system is addicted to the money it gets from cash bonds,” Ruddell told me. “That’s an incentive that keeps people incarcerated; not because they are dangerous or a threat to not come to court – it’s because they can’t afford it.”

The rationale behind pretrial detentions was originally based on the perception that a suspect is likely to not show up to trial and poses a public safety risk. To the contrary, in the ACLU Illinois’ written comments to Illinois Commission on Pretrial Practices, there is “no evidence” that felony offenses such as unlawful use of a weapon correlate to “an elevated risk of flight or danger.” 

“There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasons why jails exist, why pretrial detentions exist and what cash bonds are.” Ruddell elaborated on the mistake of public perception on jails and presumption of crime. “[For example,] If you look at the data, the fact that someone possesses a gun is not a predictor that someone will commit a violent crime. Many people in cities like Chicago possess a gun, because they do not have faith the police are going to protect them. Most people possessing a gun never shoot someone.”

Perceptions and biases within the legal system are a reason why the coalition and the ICJIA recommend the use of research-based risk assessment tools. Risk assessment tools have been adopted by many courts to determine the level of threat a person facing charges poses to public safety or evasion of the trial process. Currently, Illinois courts majorly use the Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument or Revised Virginia Risk Assessment. Research has supported the evidence of these tools, but caution that they are not 100% accurate.  

The coalition of pretrial reform advocates, thus, are including proposals for the government to fund pretrial services to prevent flight and safety risks. People miss trial for many reasons, generally not due to a malicious intent to evade the legal process. Lack of transportation and forgetfulness are common factors in non attendance at a trial. Therefore, in Cook County, automated text reminders and other services have been created to help people make their court appearance dates. 

The coalition, according to Ruddell, wants the State to go a step further by creating supportive pretrial services that address the needs of people facing charges. “Our coalition advocated for establishment of pretrial services such as providing text message reminders of court dates, transportation like a voucher to pay for public transport or an uber ride that would be less expensive for the system instead of having a person miss a court date and having to go through that whole process thereafter. Those things have been studied and they work.” 

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials have been proposing electronic monitoring devices as an alternative to pretrial incarceration. Electronic monitoring devices would replace time in jail in some cases. Like pretrial detention, law enforcement believes this tool would prevent evasion. Still, electronic monitoring has not improved the marginalized communities’ relationship with law enforcement. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has, per a February 22nd letter from his office, been forced to take “immediate steps” such as making announced searches and declaring detainees too risky for the bracelets. People affected by electronic monitoring have shared their experiences with the coalition, fueling opposition to the program by criminal justice advocates.

On the subject, Pinto offered: “[Electronic monitors] brings the jails back into our communities and our homes. It stops people from doing simple things like going to the grocery store, taking care of laundry, or playing with your kids. You’re stuck in your home. We’ve seen folks who have garbage piling up in their house, because they can’t leave their house to take the garbage out without triggering their ankle shackle… Plus, anyone that’s living in your home, whether that’s your children, your family, your partner, your support network, are being exposed to the punishment complex.”

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The Coalition to End Money Bond with the Illinois Network for Pre-Trial Justice are continuing to organize public actions to call the State to act on their reforms proposed. Ruddell, Pinto, and Sanford individually explained that the coalition will approach every policy avenue necessary for pretrial reforms. The coalition has urged the State Supreme Court to update a rule mandating judiciary analysis on the impact of cash bonds on detainees. On December 19, 2019, the Illinois State Supreme Court’s Commission on Pretrial Practices will be releasing recommendations for pretrial reforms. 

Regardless, Sanford stated that reform advocates will continue to push reforms to reduce pretrial detentions. “The People’s Lobby and the coalition are going to continue our work through direct actions, around  letters-to-the-editor and op-eds. The coalition includes the voice of the many people that are impacted by this.”

With 90% of Illinois’ jail population consisting of detained persons that have not seen trial for their charges, many people are facing harsher conditions due to the inability to pay cash bonds. Overpoliced communities that are generally poor and predominantly Black or other people of color populations are especially hurt by current pretrial practices in the state. Criminal advocates and individuals impacted are organizing for pretrial reforms. Meanwhile, as Ruddell stated, people’s lives are falling apart in jail.

Jamila Mitchell is a writer that comes from across the disciplines of business management, non-profit development, and community organizing. Educated in economics and  business management at the Milwaukee School of Engineering Rader School of Business, Jamila has used her knowledge assets on neoclassical economics as an advocate and grant writer for various causes such as mental health treatment. She has worked on numerous political  campaigns including the Fight For $15 pro-union national campaign, voter rights, and various President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.