Illinois’s No-Bail Criminal Experiment
Cash bail is ending statewide on Jan. 1, despite the failure of bail reform elsewhere.
By The Editorial Board, WSJ
Dec. 12, 2022 6:43 pm ET
Democrats have full control of state government in Illinois, so they can take full credit for the mess unfolding in public safety. Crime is rising, but on Jan. 1 the Land of Lincoln will become the first state to abolish cash bail, putting more defendants awaiting criminal trial back on the streets.
New York and New Jersey have eliminated bail in some cases, and after that produced predictable results, Albany pared back parts of its law. Illinois is undeterred and is ending cash bail statewide. Count it as another dubious first for a state that’s developing a reputation as a test track for liberal hobbyhorses. (See the recent passage of a ballot measure that enshrines collective bargaining in the Illinois constitution.)
The current system in Illinois has three options: The most dangerous suspects can be detained leading up to trial. The rest can be bailed out pending a hearing, or else released on their own recognizance. The adjusted rules will eliminate the middle option and restrict judicial discretion on which suspects pose a threat to the community if freed.
Illinois enacted these changes in the SAFE-T Act, which passed in 2021 after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis at the hands of police. Many states reacted to the public outrage by rushing through criminal-justice reforms. But the Illinois bill posed so many problems that all but two of Illinois’s 102 state attorneys objected. Lawsuits filed by more than half of them are consolidated in Kankakee County. State legislators have twice amended the law to address complaints, but the no-bail experiment is set to go ahead.
For a preview of what’s likely to play out, Illinois can look at Cook County, home to Chicago, which reduced the use of bail in 2017. According to Wirepoints, 15,000 defendants freed before trial through the middle of 2022 were charged with new offenses, including murder and attempted murder. Last year Cook County’s Medical Examiner recorded 1,002 gun-related homicides, up from 881 in 2020. In the first 11 months of this year, Chicago had 3,258 people shot, including 208 shootings in November, reports WTTW.
National groups like the NAACP claim pretrial detention is harder on poor people who can’t afford bail, and that it disproportionately harms African-American. But releasing defendants en masse, especially those with a potential for violence, puts most at risk the communities with higher crime rates. Some 80% of Cook County’s murder victims in 2020 were black.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker says ending bail is about “addressing the problem of a single mother who shoplifted diapers for her baby,” and who shouldn’t be “put in jail and kept there for six months because she doesn’t have a couple of hundred dollars.” That isn’t what the bail law is about. But since he mentioned it, Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx, another “progressive prosecutor,” raised her office’s felony threshold for retail theft to $1,000 in 2016, so the diaper mom is safe.
Mr. Pritzker may assume that, with re-election behind him, he can get away with using citizens as human experiments in criminal-justice reform. Voters who see rising mayhem in the streets will know whom to blame.