On Monday, Illinois takes a big jump into uncharted waters when a law completely eliminating cash bail takes effect.
Criminal justice reform advocates, victim’s rights groups, law enforcement and the general public will surely be watching as the Pretrial Fairness Act goes into effect. The stakes are high. We urge both opponents and advocates of the law to work in good faith to accomplish the law’s goals: protecting public safety and making our criminal justice system more fair.
Court systems must closely monitor the rollout of the law, especially the outcomes — rates of rearrest and failure to show up for court appearances — for suspects in cases of domestic or sexual violence and other serious crimes. Transparency, not misinformation, is essential.
Let’s make this point as well: Let judges do their jobs.
Some activists already are taking the opposite tack, sounding the alarm about a feared surge in judges using electronic monitoring as an alternative to jail.
But as Cara Smith, director of the new Office of Statewide Pretrial Services, told WBEZ recently, electronic monitoring “remains a viable condition that a court can impose under the law. … We are not encouraging its use. We are simply — it is available to a court should they wish to impose it and they make the requisite findings.”
Electronic monitoring is not perfect. The research shows a mixed impact, at the most, on outcomes such as public safety and showing up to court. But as long as judges follow the law, we see no grounds for complaint about its use.
Whatever misgivings reformers have about electronic monitoring, the bottom line is this: It’s better than jail.
Defendants placed on electronic monitoring at least have the opportunity — which jail detainees do not — to convince a judge to allow them to go to work, school and attend to other personal business.
Research has found, overall, that ending cash bond — a step this editorial board supports — has a negligible effect on crime rates. We hope that proves to be the case here in Illinois, though New Jersey’s experience is something of a cautionary tale: In 2017, the state drastically curbed the use of cash bail — and now is poised to potentially roll back the overhaul because of increased concerns about crime.
A cash bail system has never been an ironclad guarantee of public safety and certainly not of fairness. Violent suspects who ought to remain behind bars are released because they have money. Low-level, nonviolent defendants, most of them poor people of color, languish behind bars.
Illinois is trying to fix that. We hope the fix works.
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