Illinois Could Be the First State to End Cash Bail. Here’s What You Need to Know.

The criminal justice–reform package includes a range of new policies and awaits Governor Pritzker’s signature.


Matthew Lee

A snowy winter day in Hyde Park.

By Tess Chang

Both houses of the Illinois State General Assembly passed HB3653, a criminal justice–reform bill, on January 13. The bill is now pending signature from Governor J. B. Pritzker. The legislation was advanced by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus despite opposition by Republican lawmakers. State Senator Robert Peters, whose 13th Legislative District includes much of Hyde Park, was among the bill’s sponsors and a vocal proponent of its policies.

In a criminal court case, bail is a set of terms determined by a judge that the suspect must satisfy in order to be released before their trial. Cash bail requires that the suspect pay a sum of money in order to be released. If the suspect shows up for their trial, the money is returned. If they do not, they forfeit the bail money.

Bail-reform activists claim that the system criminalizes poverty and punishes defendants with fewer financial resources. According to research by the Bail Project, a nonprofit organization, the vast majority of those in jail are low-income and cannot afford to post bail.

Critics of cash bail also argue that the practice violates constitutional principles, such as the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, because it assumes guilt before the individual is proven innocent. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 70 percent of prisoners in jail have not been convicted of a crime. This contributes to the overcrowding of jails, a concern that was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many Cook County officials have publicly endorsed the bill. In a tweet, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx wrote, “Cash bail was never about public safety. For far too many people, their assessment was based not on their risk but on their amount that they could afford to pay, so eliminating cash bail makes this about risk and not about poverty.”

Proponents of the cash bail system argue that releasing suspects pre-trial is a risk to public safety. They worry that, without cash bail, crime rates will increase, and that fewer defendants will show up to their trials.

In the case of the Illinois bill, Republican legislators have opposed it on the basis of it being “confusing” and “inoperable.” They voiced concerns about complications the new regulations would pose for law enforcement and judiciary officials, and argued that law enforcement officials were not involved in writing the bill.

If it passes, the bill would abolish cash bail in Illinois, making it the first state to do so. Other states and cities have limited the use of cash bail or drastically reduced bail amounts. California passed a law abolishing cash bail in 2018, but the reforms were halted by a ballot measure, resulting in the cash-bail system remaining in place. New York abolished bail for many misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes in 2019.

In addition to ending cash bail, HB3653 includes numerous other criminal-justice reforms. If the bill is signed into law, it will require that all law-enforcement agencies investigate and report all deaths in custody. It will also require law enforcement to give arrestees to make three phone calls instead of one. In addition, the bill will reduce barriers to victim compensation, impose new certification requirements for police officers, and require police officers to wear body cameras while on duty. These reforms would be phased in over the next years, with deadlines ranging from 2023 to 2025.

In a statement earlier this month, Pritzker signaled his support for the bill, saying, “This criminal justice package carries with it the opportunity to shape our state into a lesson in true justice for the nation by abolishing cash bail, modernizing sentencing laws, instituting a certification and decertification system for police officers statewide, requiring body cameras, reforming crowd control response, and amplifying law enforcement training standards.”

Pritzker will not be able to request amendments to the bill due to the adjourning of the current General Assembly session.