By Ben Ruddell, Director of Criminal Justice Policy

The Illinois Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the constitutionality of the Pretrial Fairness Act cleared the way for Illinois to become the first state to completely abolish the use of monetary bail on September 18, 2023.  

This decision is cause for celebration: Under the money bond system, a person’s access to wealth is the primary factor in determining who is released and who is jailed while awaiting trial—not public safety. The Pretrial Fairness Act restores the presumption of innocence by ensuring that an accused person can only be jailed pretrial if a judge finds they would pose a threat to someone else or a high risk of willful flight if released—not because they can’t afford to pay an arbitrary sum of money. Reliance on money bond negatively impacts Illinois’ most marginalized residents, unfairly extracting millions of dollars from our poorest communities each year. Under the Pretrial Fairness Act, those resources will remain in communities where they belong.

The system of money bond has never been based on public safety, but has instead relied almost entirely on the assignment of a price tag to an accused person’s freedom while they await trial.  Bond hearings have been described as a “conveyer belt” operation – often taking place over the course of only a few minutes, with no real assessment of whether the person could be safely released, or consideration of their family’s ability to afford bail.  Not surprisingly, studies show that people of color are more likely to be jailed compared to their white counterparts charged with the same offense.

The need for ending money bond is stark. Over recent years, the number of people who are jailed pretrial in Illinois – that is, incarcerated while they have not been found guilty of any crime – has more than doubled. The result has been that thousands of people have suffered the hardship of being separated from their families, losing their jobs, cars, and even custody of their children because of the bond system.  Spending even a few days in jail can completely destabilize a person’s life, and when someone is detained in jail before their case is heard, they are more likely to be convicted and to receive a longer sentence. Research shows that the overuse of jail is actually harming public safety, because pretrial incarceration actually increases the likelihood that someone will be arrested again in the future.

Beginning on September 18, in order for an accused person to be jailed pretrial, prosecutors will have to present evidence to a judge that releasing the person from custody would actually present a threat to the safety of others, or a high risk that they would flee prosecution. This will be a significant step in trying to create a criminal legal system that is more fair and just for everyone in Illinois.

Passage of the Pretrial Fairness Act in January 2021 was itself the culmination of years of organizing by Illinois residents, extensive work by a bipartisan Illinois Supreme Court Commission between 2017 and 2020, and more than five years of debate and discussion in the legislature.

As we celebrate Illinois’ elimination of money bond, our work is far from over. In the months and years ahead, we must all work together to monitor the courts in communities across the State to ensure that the new law is being implemented as intended.