Columns | Herald-News

Fairness being added to Illinois’ justice system despite efforts to prevent progress

After years of work and deliberations – and a last-minute hiccup from a court ruling – Illinois is poised at last to implement the Pretrial Fairness Act, ending money bond across our state. This historic step eliminates the practice of jailing people accused of a crime simply because they cannot afford to pay a money bond.

Opponents of ending money bond spent millions during the election campaign on desperate television advertisements aimed at spreading misinformation and stoking fear and confusion about the new law. Despite those millions of ad dollars and widespread media coverage, voters rejected the claims. After the election, legislators expressed further support for the law, resisting calls to repeal or water it down, and instead enacting revisions designed to ensure its effective implementation.

Just days before the law’s effective date, a judge in Kankakee County added to the sense of confusion and chaos when he declared the law to be unconstitutional.

While the Kankakee court’s ruling is a setback, let’s be clear. This latest attempt to resist this long overdue reform is not going to stop the end of money bond. Attorney General Kwame Raoul is acting swiftly to appeal the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court, and well-established legal precedents make it very likely that the court will ultimately overturn the Kankakee court’s ruling and uphold the law’s constitutionality. And, because the Kankakee ruling impacted only those counties that filed a lawsuit against the Pretrial Fairness Act, the measure is being implemented in a number of counties across Illinois – including most of the state’s most populous counties.

In the nearly two years since the Pretrial Fairness Act was passed, some prosecutors have been tireless in their attempts to undermine the new law in the legislature, in the media, and in the courts. These efforts have never been about justice or public safety; they are simply about preserving a system under which people are routinely jailed simply because they cannot afford to pay an arbitrary sum of money – not because their release would endanger others or create any risk that they would flee from prosecution.

Sadly, all the politics around the effort to defeat ending money bond obscures two critical points. First, the failed money bond system always has allowed people accused of crime to be released even if they pose a threat to others. These people just had to have the resources to afford bail. So, when we hear about people accused of a crime being released from pretrial detention, that is not new. It has been part of the system for decades.

But the campaign against ending money bond has really been about denying justice to people accused of crimes, to treat them as guilty before any court has adjudicated the charge. For generations, thousands of people from Illinois’ most marginalized communities have been held pretrial – sometimes for lengthy periods of time – because they did not have the money to buy their freedom. While they languished in a county jail – perhaps being innocent of the charges against them – these individuals lost their jobs, housing and even the custody of their children. Where is the justice in this system?

Each day that implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act is delayed continues to perpetuate these harms, undermining the safety and stability of our communities. That is right – this system actually undermines public safety.

When all is said and done, we expect that the law will be vindicated and money bond will be abolished in every county across Illinois, ringing in a new era of fairness in Illinois’ criminal court system. While the efforts to debase the law will not abate, we know that a system that is supposedly based on “justice” must treat people in a just fashion. That process is beginning in Illinois.

• Ben Ruddell is a staff attorney for ACLU of Illinois.