McCombie Column: End of Cash Bail Puts Illinois Families At-Risk

Be aware, Illinois. As of September 18, Illinois courts are no longer empowered to hold a hearing to require that a criminal defendant post cash bail as a condition of pretrial release. The Illinois Supreme Court’s 5-2 decision in July upholding the end of cash bail as required in the controversial SAFE-T Act will inevitably lead to increased recidivism, reduced public safety, and eventually local tax increases.

The Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling comes after a long battle over the provision of the SAFE-T Act, passed in January 2021, that ends the practice of requiring cash bail for criminal offenses. Cash bail is important to our system of justice because it is a middle ground between holding someone in jail pending trial or simply releasing them. It requires an individual accused of a criminal offense to have some financial skin in the game. When someone is arrested and released on cash bail, they have an incentive to return for their next court date or they forfeit their bond. That incentive to return to court has been eliminated by the SAFE-T Act, heightening the risk of dangerous outcomes for Illinois families and communities.

Jurisdictions in other states have experimented with extreme reforms of cash bail and experienced disastrous repercussions. Reports of criminals being caught and released multiple times in the same day, sometimes even re-arrested by the same police officer during that officer’s shift, should serve as a warning. The end of cash bail has had predictable harmful effects in other cities and states, and we have no reason to believe Illinois will be any different.

The end of cash bail makes it more difficult for police officers to keep our communities safe, hurts our court system, and puts our citizens at risk by ensuring that offenders can walk free shortly after committing heinous offenses.

The new law purports to give the courts an alternative pathway to impose pretrial detention on some criminal defendants.  However, the pathway to legal pretrial detention for courts and law enforcement professionals will be a narrow one.  Prosecutors seeking legal pretrial detention of a dangerous offender will have to take on the burden of submitting a series of findings of fact to the court, and only a widespread array of patterned facts will justify the court imposing pretrial detention on any individual defendant.  In simple terms, the legal deck is stacked against the victim and community in favor of the criminal, including violent offenders.

Beyond the risk to public safety, the elimination of cash bail will require additional resources for Illinois’ court system that will potentially come from tax increases. Ultimately, our court system will suffer until it receives additional resources to address the issues caused by the elimination of cash bail, like higher recidivism. Local property taxpayers will eventually be paying for these policy changes because courts will need more money to function. In every conceivable way, ending cash bail is the wrong policy for Illinois. We can only hope that innocent victims’ lives are not the ultimate price we have to pay.