SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – While the future of ending cash bail in Illinois remains in the hands of the courts, some states across the county have already started the process. 

New Jersey and New York have eliminated cash bail in most cases, and advocates in those states say it has made the criminal justice system more equitable. 

“It’s actually leveled the playing field so that the amount of money you have doesn’t actually determine whether you get to go home or you stay in jail pending trial,” Insha Rahman, the vice president of advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice, said.

In 2014, New Jersey’s state legislature and then Republican Governor Chris Christie passed and voters later approved a constitutional amendment to end cash bail. The law went into effect in 2017 but did not abolish the system entirely.

“[Cash bail] was only able to be used in very, very limited circumstances,” Alexander Shalom, the director of Supreme Court advocacy at the ACLU of New Jersey, said. “So much so that in the first year of our new system, despite the fact that there were about 40,000 people processed through the criminal courts, there were fewer than 40 money bails set.”

Six years later, Shalom said the plan has seen success with people on pretrial release returning to court and with low numbers of people committing serious violent crimes while released. 

“We have the highest return to court rates that we’ve ever seen in New Jersey [which] happened last year,” Shalom said. “The number of people who get re-arrested, released and then re-arrested for serious violent crimes, still hovers around 1%”

Yannick Wood, the director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said there have been limitations to bail reform in the state.

“Bail reform has not reduced the racial disparities in who’s actually being detained in New Jersey’s jails,” Wood said. “60% of New Jersey’s jails are filled with Black individuals, and the population of New Jersey is only 15% Black.”

There have been efforts in New Jersey to roll back the bail reforms that have been put in place but not to return to cash bail entirely.

“No stakeholders in New Jersey are suggesting we return to a money bail system, because we’ve seen how effective a system can be that does not rely on wealth to determine freedom,” Shalom said.

New York’s law doing away with cash bail for most nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors passed in 2019 and went into effect in 2020. Experts said the implementation of the law was rushed, and lawmakers in Illinois wanted to ensure the Pretrial Fairness Act had enough time for implementation.

“We didn’t want to have a similar experience here in Illinois, which is why in the original bill, you saw a year-long implementation, then the courts came back and said it would like a two year implementation window,” State Sen. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago) said.

Rahman said part of the law in New York requires jurisdictions to report on data related to people returning to court and those arrested while on pretrial release.

“The re-arrest numbers, from before bail reform to after are basically the same,” Rahman said. “And likewise, people are still coming back to court, in fact, at slightly better rates than before bail reform, because there’s been more investment in pretrial services and supports to make sure people come back to court.”

Unlike New York, New Jersey spent two and half years preparing to implement ending cash bail. In Illinois, Sarah Staudt, the director of policy at Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, said the state spent two years preparing for the law to go into effect through the Pretrial Implementation Working Group. That consisted of prosecutors, public defenders, sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies statewide discussing how the law would be implemented. 

“Different counties also had working groups to make sure that things would work individually in their counties,” Staudt said. “So there’s really been a huge amount of preparation from all of the sides of the judicial system, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, getting ready for this.”

While Illinois waits to see what happens, Staudt said the state is prepared.

“When the Pretrial Fairness Act does go live, the courts will be ready to do it,” Staudt said.

The Illinois Supreme Court said they have accelerated the date to decide whether eliminating cash bail in Illinois is unconstitutional, but oral arguments will not happen until March.