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B-N Organizers Celebrate End To Cash Bail; More Work Ahead

Breanna Grow
Vera Traver is among those in McLean County celebrating an expected end to cash bail after Illinois legislators passed a criminal reform bill on Wednesday.

As a senior case worker at Labyrinth, YWCA McLean County’s transitional housing program for formerly incarcerated women, Vera Traver has witnessed the devastating effects of cash bail.

But she’s also lived them as a formerly incarcerated woman herself.

Traver said she spent six months in jail, held on a $100 bond. While that may not seem like much, she didn’t have a job back then, making $100 hard to come by.

The experience still has an impact on her self-esteem. “It made me feel like I’m not even worth $100,” she said. “Sometimes even to this day, I have to remind myself that I am priceless.”

Experiences like Traver’s are exactly the kind activists hope a new state law will prevent in the future.

Earlier this week, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Pretrial Fairness Act, sending it to Gov. JB Pritzker, who is expected to sign it into law. 

The bill, set to take effect in 2023, will end the practice of holding people accused of crimes in jail until their court date unless they can pay bail--often called cash bail or money bond. 

On Saturday, Traver joined representatives of other local groups working to enact criminal justice reform to celebrate the win in a virtual discussion hosted by the YWCA of McLean County.

Traver said there is a ripple effect on the community when someone can’t afford to post bond, and the effects are amplified the longer the person sits in jail.

“Sometimes they lose their children, they lose their apartment, they lose their job, they lose their car,” she said. “So the longer they stay in trying to raise money for a bond, their whole life is basically going down the drain.”

And, losing those footholds makes it that much harder to return to life outside of jail, Traver said.

“Everything is gone, so where do I start?” she said. “And if they have a background of crime, that’s going to be the first thing that comes to mind, like, ‘I can get some fast money.’”

Malik Alim, an organizer with the Coalition to End Money Bond, said many of the people held in jail, unable to post bond, aren’t convicted of a crime--but serve jail time anyway. 

“Now, instead of the presumption of detention, people will now have a presumption of release,” Alim explained, adding a state’s attorney or prosecutor will need to file a motion of detention to keep someone in jail.

The law also contains a provision allowing those under electronic monitoring at home two days of movement for essential activities like grocery shopping, said Alim, who emphasized the new law won’t mean dangerous offenders are released back into the community. 

“That isn’t the impact of our bill;  we’re strengthening the standards for people to be detained in jail,” he said. “The decision to hold somebody in a cage before they’ve been convicted of a crime should be a very weighty decision, and we are adding the discretion for judges to make those determinations.”

Black Lives Matter Organizer Olivia Butts said she’s also heard pushback on the bill from those who fear people accused won’t appear at their trial if they aren’t held until that date. Butts said people who fail to show up in court aren’t simply avoiding sentencing.

“People don’t come back because the court date changed, and there wasn’t enough notice,” she said. “People are trying to go to work and they’re trying to get things organized with their families, and they maybe don’t have transportation, they maybe don’t have child care.”

A provision in the bill will allow judges to differentiate between a failure to appear in court and willful flight, once the law takes effect.

Alim said until then, organizers need to focus on defending the bill.

“It will be attacked,” he said. “There was huge opposition to this legislation, but it was solid. It was strong legislation, and that’s why it passed.”

Supporters also will continue to support those incarcerated who can’t afford to post bail.

Since identifying cash bail as one of its priorities in 2018, Butts said Black Lives Matter has raised more than $20,000 to help 14 people at the McLean County Jail post bond.

“In these next few years, we’ll still see people incarcerated pretrial,” she said. 

Black Lives Matter also has called attention to the fees assessed on video and phone calls at the McLean County Jail during the pandemic, when in-person visits are suspended.

Traver said she’s personally had issues trying to reach an incarcerated family member at the jail. Because of technical issues, she’s never actually been able to have a video call with that relative, despite paying the fees for several attempted calls.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.