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Lawmakers discuss eliminating cash bail, creating alternatives to police response

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Ending cash bail is one of the top priorities for Gov. JB Pritzker and the Legislative Black Caucus. State lawmakers held a virtual hearing to address the practice Tuesday afternoon.

Innocent until proven guilty is a legal principle most people know. But many Black Illinoisans sit in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail.

Lawmakers and criminal justice advocates have worked on solutions to this issue for several years including a partnership with the courts. The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Pretrial Practices released a report in April with proposed changes for lawmakers.

23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Robbin Stuckert chairs the commission. She believes a robust and effective pretrial system is the first and most crucial step towards minimizing and eventually ending cash bail.

“However, simply eliminating cash bail at the outset without first implementing meaningful reforms and dedicating adequate resources to allow evidence-based risk assessment and supervision would be premature,” Stuckert said.

Several lawmakers agreed expanding pretrial services could help dismantle racism in the criminal justice system. Many advocate groups have supported the Pretrial Fairness Act in the fight to eliminate cash bail.

Coalition to End Money Bond

“Money bond is the rare policy that’s able to both take advantage of the incredible economic disparity that exists in our country and compounds it with the racial discrimination found in the legal system,” said Malik Alim.

The campaign coordinator for the Coalition to End Money Bond says over 80 organizations support his group’s goal. Alim emphasized a lack of access to money should never lead to people staying behind bars longer.

“Pretrial incarceration has increased 433% since 1970,” said Sharone Mitchell Jr, Director of the Illinois Justice Project. “It’s time to turn that around and it’s time to end money bond. We can make reasonable detention decisions without using money.”

Sheriffs respond

At the same time, many law enforcement organizations oppose the move to end cash bail. Some sheriffs argue there could be a rise in failure to appear for court dates and subpoenas.

“I’m not here to tell you that we think the system should create financial constraints that are unachievable for people on low level offenses,” explained Wayne County Sheriff Mike Everett. “But, we do think there needs to be some form of accountability and we would argue that a financial system helps support that accountability.”

Everett also said costs for circuit court offices and restitution for victims of crimes usually come from bail. He believes community public safety could be at risk if more individuals are let out of facilities.

The Illinois Probation and Court Services Association previously opposed ending cash bail. Co-Chair Tom Gregory says the organization isn’t taking a side on the debate, agreeing with the Supreme Court Commission’s research. Gregory says many small jurisdictions are in the early stages of implementing pretrial procedures. Still, he feels abruptly ending cash bail would be a setback. Instead, Gregory suggested looking at all the pieces of pretrial reform.

“Once the person is placed on pretrial supervision, what are the conditions that need to be placed on that person? Those conditions need to be consistent all through the state of Illinois,” Gregory said. “Without that being done, we’re not helping our system. We need to start at the very beginning and work our way all the way through.”

Reforming police response

The committee also discussed possible alternatives to police response, specifically for instances where negotiators and counselors could help individuals with mental illnesses or substance abuse issues.

Candace Coleman, the Racial Justice Organizer for Access Living, says the country has a negative trend for police interactions with people with disabilities. Coleman noted many of those situations resulted in harm or death, including the shooting of 15-year-old Stephon Watts. Stephon’s sister, Renee Watts, explained the complications he dealt with from a young age including lack of speech, sensory issues, and Asperger’s. Counselors told the family they needed to call police to send Stephon to a nearby hospital whenever he was in crisis. Calumet City officers helped calm Stephon during several previous episodes, but that wasn’t the case on February 1, 2012.

Stephon’s father called the non-emergency police number asking for assistance bringing his son to the hospital. Shortly after the call, several squad cars arrived and Stephon’s father said the family didn’t need assistance anymore. However, the officers said they had to see Stephon in person.

“Soon after my father reached the bottom steps to the basement, Stephon with the butter knife in a jacket tried to run out the door. But he was shot twice by two officers – one in his side and the other in his back killing him,” Watts explained. “We trusted the system and that Calumet City officers trained to handle persons on the autism spectrum.”

Watts hopes lawmakers will craft a proposal to give police departments an effective and more cost-saving solution.

Support on standby

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police says officers must respond to scenes as the level of danger is unknown. Still, Executive Director Ed Wojcicki explained departments can utilize social workers and mental health workers after initial interactions with police on scene. He noted those employees also follow up with families after an emergency to support any families or victims of abuse.

“They can provide court diversion for juveniles and adults sometimes for substance abuse victims,” Wojcicki said. “This has been happening ever since a UIC professor created what he called the Police Social Service Project in the 1970s.”

Wojcicki says these officers can help diffuse situations and provide social work services.

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Mike Miletich

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