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Editorial: A new Illinois law would let judges, not finances, determine who stays in jail

Editorial: A new Illinois law would let judges, not finances, determine who stays in jail

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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday signed a sweeping legislative package that will, in two years, make his state the first in the nation to abolish cash bail completely. Unlike an earlier experiment in New York State, Illinois is doing it right by concurrently expanding the discretion of judges to hold suspects — based not on their ability to pay but on their risk of flight or public danger.

It’s an approach Missouri and other states should watch closely.

The principle that criminal suspects are innocent until proven guilty is a bedrock of the American justice system, one that cash bail has always undermined. At first blush it might sound reasonable enough to require suspects to post a refundable bond to ensure they will show up for trial.

But what if the suspect is innocent and has no money for bail? Even if that person is ultimately exonerated at trial, he or she might spend weeks or months in jail for no reason other than the inability to pay to get out. That’s the exact opposite of justice. Meanwhile, a well-heeled defendant gets to await trial at home. Cash bail effectively makes poverty a jailable offense.

The idea that defendants would routinely fail to appear for trial if they aren’t required to post bail doesn’t pass the common-sense test. Failure to appear is a crime in its own right, immediately making the defendant a fugitive who would be risking more prison time. Earlier reforms in New Jersey and the District of Columbia that scaled back the use of cash bail found no significant spike in the percentage of defendants who failed to show up for their court dates.

The cash-bail system not only penalizes impoverished suspects who might be innocent, it also allows suspects who do pose a genuine risk of flight or public danger to go free just because they can pay. St. Louis saw this in 2019, when Samuel Scott, awaiting trial on domestic battery charges, was released on cash bail with the help of a well-intentioned inmate advocacy group. He then allegedly killed his wife.

As Lake County, Illinois, State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart noted in defense of the Illinois measure: “We are finally ending the injustice of dangerous people buying their freedom.” The crucial element is that the new Illinois law gives broader discretion to judges to decide whether to jail a defendant while cutting money out of the equation. This is as it should be.

This newspaper opposes the naïve notion that it’s never appropriate to hold a suspect pending trial. But the decision should be based on relevant factors like the suspect’s likelihood of flight and the safety of the public — not the irrelevant factor of how much money the suspect happens to have.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday signed a sweeping legislative package that will, in two years, make his state the first in the nation to abolish cash bail completely. Unlike an earlier experiment in New York State, Illinois is doing it right by concurrently expanding the discretion of judges to hold suspects — based not on their ability to pay but on their risk of flight or public danger. It’s an approach Missouri and other states should watch closely.

The principle that criminal suspects are innocent until proven guilty is a bedrock of the American justice system, one that cash bail has always undermined. At first blush it might sound reasonable enough to require suspects to post a refundable bond to ensure they will show up for trial. But what if the suspect is innocent and has no money for bail? Even if that person is ultimately exonerated at trial, he or she might spend weeks or months in jail for no reason other than the inability to pay to get out. That’s the exact opposite of justice. Meanwhile, a well-heeled defendant who might be guilty as hell gets to await trial at home. Cash bail effectively makes poverty a jailable offense.

The idea that defendants would routinely fail to appear for trial if they aren’t required to post bail doesn’t pass the common-sense test. Failure to appear is a crime in its own right, immediately making the defendant a fugitive who would be risking more prison time. Earlier reforms in New Jersey and the District of Columbia that scaled back the use of cash bail found no significant spike in the percentage of defendants who failed to show up for their court dates.

The cash-bail system not only penalizes impoverished suspects who might be innocent, it also allows suspects who do pose a genuine risk of flight or public danger to go free just because they can pay. St. Louis saw this in 2019, when Samuel Scott, awaiting trial on domestic battery charges, was released on cash bail with the help of a well-intentioned inmate advocacy group. He then allegedly killed his wife. As Lake County, Illinois, State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart noted in defense of the Illinois measure: “We are finally ending the injustice of dangerous people buying their freedom.”

The crucial element is that the new Illinois law gives broader discretion to judges to decide whether to jail a defendant while cutting money out of the equation. This is as it should be.

This newspaper opposes the naïve notion that it’s never appropriate to hold a suspect pending trial. But the decision should be based on relevant factors like the suspect’s likelihood of flight and the safety of the public — not the irrelevant factor of how much money the suspect happens to have.

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