Illinois May Be First State to Eliminate Money Bail, But the Fight Isn’t Over

Prison courtyard with open door

The fight to end the criminalization of poverty and the targeting of Black communities still has a long way to go.
Prison courtyard with open door

On January 13, the Illinois legislature passed the Pretrial Fairness Act (as part of HB 3653 SFA2). Once signed, this bill will make the state the first to completely eradicate the use of money bail.

Once fully implemented in 2023, the Pretrial Fairness Act will make Illinois’s pretrial system a national model. In addition to ending money bail, a variety of other provisions will improve the fairness of the state’s pretrial system and ensure that the vast majority of people are released before trial. The bill creates a limited detention eligibility net and mandates pretrial release in the majority of cases; reforms the way people are treated when they miss court dates; ensures sentencing credit for time spent and movement permissions for people on electronic monitoring; regulates the use of risk assessment tools, such as Cook County’s Public Safety Assessment; and ensures transparency and accountability through mandatory data collection and publication. Together, these changes move the state’s orientation toward a real presumption of pretrial freedom and an understanding that public safety comes from investment and resources rather than incarceration.

The passage of this historic legislation was made possible by long-term community organizing, but catalyzed by last summer’s uprisings in response to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. While lifting up the cries to defund police and refund communities, movement leaders demanded a new vision of community safety that relies not on militarized policing and violent punishment, but instead on resources like living wage jobs and fully funded schools and social services. The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus understood the protests as a mandate to bring sweeping changes to the state’s criminal legal system.

Over the past 40 years, courts have jailed increasing numbers of people — disproportionately Black — who are awaiting trial and presumed innocent, simply because they cannot afford to pay money bail. This pretrial incarceration often lasts for months or even years, making it much harder for accused people to fight their cases, increasing pressure to accept plea deals, and leading to longer sentences. Pretrial jailing can lead to the loss of jobs, homes and even custody of children. By destabilizing people’s lives, pretrial detention makes us all less safe.

Since 2016, the Coalition to End Money Bond and the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice (of which our organizations have served as anchors) have been organizing to bring an end to money bail. The Coalition’s 14 member organizations brought together a range of complementary capacities, including policy advocacy from organizations like Chicago Appleseed and the Illinois Justice Project; Black-led racial justice organizing by Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL); and broad-based community and electoral organizing by The People’s Lobby (TPL). The newly formed Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) brought a laser-like focus on this issue. This enabled the coalition to engage in a mix of “inside game” and “outside game” strategies. Our impact litigation and policy work complemented the grassroots work building power to move elected decisionmakers.

We used a variety of strategies in our organizing, ranging from courtwatching, data analysis and report writing, and direct actions, such as the one in which TPL and SOUL occupied the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building for five hours in an act of civil disobedience. Media and art were also essential tools in our campaign. CCBF led this effort, working with volunteers, videographers and graphic designers to produce compelling, original educational materials like videos, animations and infographics. Our policy experts wrote legislation that became the Pretrial Fairness Act and talked to dozens of legislators about how courts could achieve their goals while respecting the presumption of innocence and freeing the vast majority of people before trial.

Uplifting the voices of people directly impacted by money bail and pretrial incarceration was a core element of Coalition activities. CCBF paid bail regularly for people and supported them in processing and analyzing their experiences. Many of them went on to share their stories with media, decisionmakers and community leaders. In Illinois, personal testimonies from members of CCBF, SOUL, TPL and others were key to changing the public conversation about wealth-based incarceration. Advocates can state hard facts until they are blue in the face, but personal stories from people impacted by pretrial incarceration move legislators, media and others without personal experiences in a completely different way. Over the past five years, the Coalition made money bail a widely understood and unpopular policy failure — and a litmus test for candidates and officials claiming to support racial justice.

At several key points, The People’s Lobby and other groups used electoral organizing to move the campaign forward. In 2016, reform candidate Kim Foxx defeated incumbent Anita Alvarez in an election for Cook County state’s attorney with a platform that included bail reform and a broader repudiation of “tough-on-crime” policies. Robert Peters, TPL’s political director and former Coalition organizer, was appointed and then elected to the Illinois Senate, where he became a leading champion for bail reform. These elections showed widespread public support for ending money bail, changed the political calculus for other elected officials and added important new voices to decisionmaking bodies.

Passing state legislation required uniting a diverse and statewide base of support. In 2019, the Coalition recruited dozens of additional organizations to form the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice (INPJ), of which our organizations have served as anchors. Together, we then engaged thousands of people to take action in Chicago, its suburbs, and throughout the rest of the state. To build this broad base, we centered Black leadership because Black people are by far the most impacted by money bail. At the same time, we also pushed people in other communities to recognize that we all have a stake in ending white supremacy and the criminal policies that perpetuate it.

By early 2020, the Coalition had secured Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s support in ending money bail, but the COVID-19 pandemic quickly brought the 2020 legislative session to a halt. The Black Lives Matter uprisings that began in May agitated and inspired a broader array of legislators to make criminal legal reform a priority. Soon, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, led by Sen. Elgie Sims and Rep. Justin Slaughter, began working on a package of reforms to policing and incarceration. Senator Peters and Representative Slaughter, the sponsors of the Pretrial Fairness Act, advocated for the Black Caucus to include ending money bail in this package.

Meanwhile, we built relationships with key organizations working to end domestic and sexual violence and negotiated their support for the Pretrial Fairness Act. Faith leaders organized through The People’s Lobby, Community Renewal Society, SOUL, A Just Harvest, Trinity United Church of Christ, United Congregations of Metro East, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism of Illinois and Believers Bail Out also played an important role in lifting up the voices of members impacted by bail, moving a number of legislators outside Chicago, and securing media coverage at key moments. Ultimately, INPJ members organized thousands of people to call and email their legislators in late 2020 and early 2021.

Immediately upon its passage on January 13, Governor Pritzker congratulated the sponsors and the Coalition, and is expected to sign the bill.

Our organizing has not always gotten everything right. Our actions were often too centered in Chicago, and we need to increase our power-building efforts in the suburbs and across the state. There were times when very specialized discussions of legal policy questions took over our coalition meetings, and the grassroots organizers and leaders did not always feel empowered to fully participate. The process of our movement building, however, elevated and centered the voices of directly impacted people, built a powerful and united statewide network, laid the groundwork for significant divestment from jails — starting with a $26 million reduction in the budget of the Cook County Sheriff in 2021 — and won the farthest-reaching overhaul of pretrial systems in the country.

Our push to end money bail is not over. Police, prosecutors and their allies have shown that they are going to fight these reforms and attempt to stoke the kind of backlash that has rolled back efforts in places as diverse as New York, Atlanta, Alaska and California. The Pretrial Fairness Act will ramp up over a two-year period, so we’re going to need to keep up the fight and push hard to make sure the state follows through on the ambitious goals set by the bill’s passage.

Illinois organizers have sent a resounding message to the rest of the country that we must bring an end to the criminalization of poverty and the targeting of Black communities. The passage of the Pretrial Fairness Act signals a new era in how we must continue to reimagine safety and justice in our communities: by providing people with resources instead of caging them for ransom. In Illinois, we have shown that when movements open new windows of possibility, community organizing can push through transformational changes.

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