Courts in counties across Illinois take first steps into a world without cash bail
Illinois’ first day without cash bail got off to a slow start outside the Chicago metro area on Monday, with at least one county still using the old system for pretrial decision making. In Chicago and its suburbs, court proceedings took much longer than before, but the new process ran relatively smoothly.
For more than two years, Illinois has been preparing for — and battling over — the end of cash bail, a change that makes Illinois the first state in the U.S. to take money out of pretrial decisions on detainment and release. On Monday, the new regime got underway.
The day started with an early morning press conference in front of the main Cook County criminal courthouse, with supporters of the massive change looking forward to the new system.
“Today, we end an antiquated and unjust system that has disproportionately harmed our communities of color and the poor,” Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch said in front of the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Monday. “Today, we are one step closer to a detention system that puts victims first. Today, Illinois is no longer criminalizing poverty, and the entire nation has their eyes on us.”
In counties outside Chicago, some of the court officials tasked with enacting the new system were vehemently opposed to the change. Many downstate prosecutors joined an unsuccessful legal challenge to the law.
In some of those counties there was an inconsistent interpretation of when the new law took effect, with some arguing that it should be based on when a person was arrested or charged, instead of the date specified by the state Supreme Court. A spokesperson for that court, reached by WBEZ, declined to weigh in on the debate.
In west suburban DuPage County, the state’s second-most populated judicial circuit, 22 pretrial defendants arrested from Sunday through early Monday were brought one-by-one to a newly remodeled courtroom near the sheriff’s office.
Of those, 14 faced charges of domestic battery — a misdemeanor — or violation of a protection order in a domestic violence case. For other defendants, charges ranged from retail theft to aggravated driving with a suspended or revoked license.
If the proceedings had been bond hearings like those held through Sunday, according to DuPage County public defender Jeff York, “we probably would have been done within an hour for sure.”
York said that’s because the judge would have set a bond in each case after quick statements from the prosecutor and defense attorney. York said the preparation for his staff of defense attorneys — who represent people who cannot afford an attorney — would have been quicker too: “We would have had 5 to 10 minutes with our client and no evidence discovery.”
But Monday’s hearings, which began at 8:30 a.m., did not finish until around 4:30 p.m. Nine defendants were ordered released within 15 minutes each because the prosecutors had not petitioned for detention and because the defense attorneys voiced few qualms about the conditions of release.
The contested hearings averaged roughly a half hour each because defense attorneys — armed with evidence in their cases due to the new law — could present stronger arguments for their client’s liberty. The hearings stretched longer when interpretation was necessary for defendants who did not speak much English. Monday’s defendants included several Spanish speakers and two from Romania.
Prosecutors ultimately sought pretrial detention for 10 of the day’s 22 defendants. Of those, Judge Dieden — having found a safety threat or flight risk — ordered jail for just two.
One of the defendants released by Dieden had been arrested for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon while on probation for a 2021 conviction on a similar charge.
DuPage County State’s Attorney Bob Berlin, who appeared briefly in the courtroom, said later that the new law did not allow prosecutors to petition for detention in that case.
Dieden ordered jail for two others until at least Tuesday because technical glitches had blocked evidence discovery. From the bench, Dieden voiced concerns about adding to Tuesday’s court call: “I’m worried about the snowball effect and that we’ll have the same problem tomorrow.”
Some advocates who campaigned for eliminating cash bail have voiced worries that Illinois judges will substitute electronic monitoring for the money bonds. But Dieden did not order electronic monitoring for anyone Monday.
At the Sangamon County courthouse in Springfield, pretrial hearings were still being conducted under the old system. Officials there said it was because no new arrests had been made since the law took effect at 12:01 a.m. on Monday.
That seemed to contradict the Illinois Supreme Court’s July ruling authorizing the end of cash bail. The high court’s instructions said “September 18, 2023” was the day that “the circuit courts are directed to conduct hearings consistent with” the Pretrial Fairness Act.
Sangamon County Chief Judge Christopher Reif did not answer WBEZ’s phone calls seeking clarification about the county’s decision to hold hearings under the old system.
An Illinois Supreme Court spokesperson declined to comment on whether Sangamon County was properly interpreting the ruling.
Inside the courtroom Monday, there was debate over whether the defendants who were already in custody should be processed under the new cashless system. That would have meant forgoing bond and instead setting conditions, such as electronic monitoring, for their release pretrial.
Public Defender Craig Reiser argued that people with hearings on Monday should have been released or had their bond amounts lowered because their charges were no longer detainable under the new law. Many defendants were charged with domestic battery or lower-level misdemeanors such as retail theft.
The prosecutor argued the defendants were charged with crimes before the new system went into effect, making the previous status quo the “calculus the court should take.”
Judge Rudolph Braud granted the release of almost every defendant after making them promise to appear for their next court date. Several people were relieved. One defendant fist bumped courtroom security on his way out.
But Braud denied a bond reduction for three people. One person charged with retail theft had “too many pending charges” in surrounding counties and was deemed a willful flight risk. Another person charged with aggravated battery was also denied a bond reduction, due to outstanding battery and domestic battery cases. The last person denied a reduction was charged with possessing firearms without a valid Firearm Owners Identification card.
St. Clair and Madison counties
More than 500,000 people live in Madison and St. Clair counties near St. Louis, but there were no new pretrial hearings in either county on Monday.
Both, however, have at least four combined pretrial hearings scheduled for Tuesday, according to judges in the counties.
“I do expect over time, we’re going to be making a pitch for some more detainable offenses,” said Ryan Kemper, an assistant state’s attorney in Madison County. “But a lot of this is just sort of the normal ebb and flow of how cases come into this office.”
The Madison County Criminal Justice Center in Edwardsville did host one initial appearance on Monday under the new system.
A state’s attorney sought detention of a man charged with felony stalking, but a public defender asked for a 24-hour delay. The judge granted the delay, setting the detainment hearing for Tuesday afternoon.
Despite the lack of pretrial hearings, judges said they were pleased with the first day under the new system.
“Things went as well as we could have hoped today,” said Judge Kyle Napp, the chief criminal judge in Illinois’s 3rd Circuit, which covers Madison and Bond counties.
Easing into such significant changes with a relatively light workload wasn’t a bad thing, Napp said.
Napp, who oversees but does not preside over initial appearances and pretrial hearings, said getting all the little details right — like starting court promptly at 1:15 p.m. and giving proper notice to all parties involved — will be the focus for Madison County over the next week.
In the McLean County courthouse in Bloomington, three people had pretrial hearings on Monday.
The hearings happened in a packed courtroom, with four judges and State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds watching from the gallery. Reynolds was one of several state’s attorneys who joined a failed legal bid to stop the abolition of bail.
In an example of Monday’s confusion over the new law’s implementation, the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney debated whether a man arrested Saturday on gun charges was eligible for cash bail under the old system or if he should be processed under the new system.
Unlike what played out in Sangamon County, the man’s attorney argued he should be eligible for the old cash bail system, hoping to get his client out of jail.
Ultimately, the judge sided with prosecutors, and McLean County had its first hearing on a petition to detain under the new system. Prosecutors successfully argued that the defendant — a 24-year-old accused of possessing a gun as a felon — posed a risk to public safety.
Chip Mitchell reports on criminal justice for WBEZ. Mawa Iqbal covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Will Bauer is St. Louis Public Radio’s Metro East reporter. Edith Brady-Lunny reports on criminal justice for WGLT in Bloomington-Normal. Follow them at @ChipMitchell1, @mawa_iqbal, @Will_Bauer_ and @eblunnyreports.