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My Turn | Reflecting on six months without money bond in Illinois

On Monday, we celebrated the six-month anniversary of the implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act. There are few places where racial injustice was more apparent in Illinois’ criminal legal system than in the use of monetary bail. The Pretrial Fairness Act was aimed at correcting some of those inequities and eliminated our two-tiered system of justice that routinely and systematically disadvantaged people of color, particularly Black people.

Under the old money-bond system, judges simply required people to pay money to be released from jail — a system that research shows did not make us safer.

Bond amounts were often arbitrary, and not related to the safety of our communities or whether a person would appear in court if released. If the accused could pay that price, they went home; if they couldn’t, they remained in jail.

Unsurprisingly, most of the people forced to remain in jail because of unaffordable bonds were people of color.

Wealth-based detention served only to destabilize vulnerable individuals and communities and caused catastrophic results for Black Illinoisans. In 2019 in Illinois, Black people made up 51 percent of the jail population, almost quadruple the share of the state’s population. Much of this disparity occurred because of racism that infected the execution of our monetary bail system.

According to research, judges regularly require Black people to pay monetary bonds at levels that are significantly higher than White defendants charged with similar offenses, which means more Black people are held in jail. That result should be no surprise to anyone who has examined an American jail population.

The disparities in how judges set monetary bonds not only led to more Black people held in jail pretrial, but also had other ripple effects. People held pretrial on an unaffordable bond face an impossible choice: enter a guilty plea to get out of jail, even if they are innocent, or remain in custody awaiting a trial date that might be months or years away.

Or worse, sometimes pretrial detention has life-ending consequences. Between 2019 and 2022, 564 people in Illinois died while in custody. Almost half of those people were Black, and many of those people were held on unaffordable bail. All those people were loved ones — friends, family members and neighbors — who will never return home. Those who are trapped in jail awaiting trial also face the loss of jobs, housing and even custody of a child, all losses burdened disproportionately by the Black community.

In 2021, we started to put a stop to this harmful system, inspired by the millions of Americans protesting the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. Instead of hiding from the call to action echoed in these marches, members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus — including state Sens. Elgie Sims and Robert Peters and state Rep. Justin Slaughter, all Chicago Democrats — along with advocates from the Illinois Pretrial Justice Network, embraced it and fought to end a system of detention that prioritized wealth over public safety.

The act abolished money bonds, created a standard tied to safety for judges to determine whether to incarcerate or release a person pretrial and ensured transparency and oversight in our pretrial system by requiring data collection. Low-income Illinoisans no longer must buy their own freedom while still presumed innocent, or worse, plead guilty simply to avoid long periods of unnecessary incarceration.

After just six months, we are starting to see evidence of the act’s success and its ability to advance racial justice and create more equitable practices in our courts. The Pretrial Fairness Act, however, is not a standalone solution. We must follow it with legislation like the Pretrial Success Act, which builds on the progress made by ending money bond, by increasing access to health and human services for people awaiting trial in the community.

Protecting the Pretrial Fairness Act is just the beginning of our state’s journey toward racial justice, but it is an essential first step. We can continue to honor our commitment to safe, equitable communities by protecting the Pretrial Fairness Act and expanding the supportive solutions that have already made it successful.

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