The controversy surrounding cash bail reform won't die down anytime soon. And here's why. The governor of Illinois just signed a bill into law that ends cash bail in that state, examples of domestic violence horror stories related to bail are too prevalent to ignore, and the President of the United States is working toward enacting a campaign pledge to end cash bail nationwide and stop criminalizing poverty.
The next few years should be very interesting, to say the least.
In case you aren’t aware, the state of Illinois can claim many “firsts” throughout its history:
Illinois is the first state to eliminate cash bail from its justice system. The system of cash bail has existed in the United States for more than 100 years, and it’s always been controversial. During times of social and economic strife, opponents come out of the woodwork like cockroaches at night – pouncing on the emotions of voters regarding social, racial, and economic equality.
Opponents of HB3653 say that's what happened when the bill ultimately became rock-solid, signed into law by Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker. Among the most noteworthy aspects of the law is the elimination of the cash bail system through the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act, a part of HB 3653. The new law does away with wealth-based detention. Now, judges have a more rigorously defined decision-making process that is based on a legitimate risk “of present threat or willful flight. This will be rolled out slowly under a two-year plan and will not go fully in effect until 2023, while other parts of the law will go into effect as early as July.”
Illinois has another “first” but how that plays out is up in the air.
When people talk about the cash bail system in America, the discussion inevitably becomes passionate and heated. Most mainstream media outlets – think CNN, NBC, The Washington Post – clearly promote hard news and human-interest stories about the inherent racism of cash bail, that it harms the poor, and on and on.
Other Media – such as Fox News, Newsmax, The Wall Street Journal – tilt the scales of balanced journalism in the completely opposite direction. Their argument is simple: Cash bail keeps the right people behind bars, ensuring that innocent, law-abiding citizens aren’t harmed by habitual repeat offenders who got off free by the gavel of a liberal judge.
If you’re a hard-working bondsman tired and beaten up by the battle, you may be thinking there has to be a middle ground somewhere to meet. And maybe there is, but you can't ignore the very real consequences of what can happen when hardened criminals are set free. We're not talking jazzed-up comic book crime, either. This is real-world stuff.
In Illinois, Cassandra Tanner Miller knows how the system failed her. Her husband, a former corrections officer and member of the Illinois National Guard viciously beat and strangled her but was then released the same day on an I-bond. He then went further, later murdering the couple’s 18-month old child. She met with the Illinois governor, pleading with him to strengthen bond conditions, but watched him do otherwise by signing into law a bill eliminating cash bail in her state.
"He absolutely let me down," Tanner said.
A Republican-leaning Illinois police chief’s association had this to say: "We urge all citizens to remember who supported this law," the statement concludes, "and keep that in mind the next time they look to the police in Illinois for the protection they can no longer provide."
President Joe Biden has an interesting relationship with criminal justice reform, considering his role in the 1994 crime law, but he’s in the White House now, so his latest campaign promises about justice are worth talking about. Leading up to the election on Nov. 3, 2020, Biden campaigned on the notions of equality, equity, and justice – noble, to say the least. Bail bonds professionals across the country – and in Jefferson County, Arapahoe County, Denver County, and throughout Colorado – should take note of the president’s wish list.
According to Biden’s pre-election win website, he seeks to do away with the “criminalization of poverty” by ending cash bail and to “Stop jailing people for being too poor to pay fines and fees.” These are classic left-leaning tropes that cash bail purposely harms people who can’t afford to pay, and further contributes to poverty rates.
Here’s what Biden’s website says about his goals for ending cash bail: “Cash bail is the modern-day debtors’ prison. The cash bail system incarcerates people who are presumed innocent. And, it disproportionately harms low-income individuals. Biden will lead a national effort to end cash bail and reform our pretrial system by putting in place, instead, a system that is fair and does not inject further discrimination or bias into the process.”
President Biden has clearly drawn the battle lines for where he stands, ideologically, when it comes to cash bail. But the bruising reality of Washington, D.C. politics – especially with Republicans nearly capsizing to the right – is his plan may never see the light of day without serious compromises.
The whole key, of course, is what constitutes “fair” without adding more discrimination or bias. Bottom line? The battle continues, as we expected, with both armies ready.