Imagine this: You’re accused of a serious crime. You know you’re innocent, and you think that you will be able to prove your innocence in court — if the prosecutor’s case doesn’t fall through before then.
Just the same, you’re hustled off to jail and separated from your family, your job and your life and told that you can only go back if you post hundreds or thousands of dollars in bail — and you simply don’t have it. Neither do your family members and friends. You’re forced to sit for months behind bars while you’re life unravels outside.
That’s the reality for thousands of innocent people throughout the nation every year, including in Illinois. Cash bail systems discriminate heavily against the poor. They essentially set up a two-tiered legal system. One allows well-heeled innocent defendants to go home, maintain their jobs and their homes, keep custody of their children and work with their defense attorneys whenever they want. Innocent defendants trapped in the other system, however, will sit in a crowded, unsanitary jail for long periods until they either win their release at a trial or give up and take a plea deal just so they can be released. The depth of your pockets basically controls which group you land in.
While Illinois did pass a law in 2017 allowing judges to release nonviolent defendants charged with low-level crimes without bail, it didn’t go far enough. Judges still have a great deal of latitude to decide whether or not to do so — and many continue to follow old practices.
Advocates who hope to eliminate the cash bail system say that approximately 250,000 people in the state each year still suffer through pretrial incarceration that amounts to nothing more than discrimination against poor defendants. They’re pushing Illinois state representatives to eliminate the system almost entirely despite strong opposition from other special interest groups (including, unsurprisingly, bail bondsmen).
Hopefully, there will be more progress toward criminal justice reforms and bail reforms in the state soon. In the meantime, it’s always wise to remember that an experienced defense attorney is always your best defense if you’ve been charged with a crime.