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Friday, March 5, 2021

‘Are you willing to be treated like a criminal?’

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Searing temperatures have wiped out the ice and snow and made it easy to grab a cold beer. Already the Dakota State Fair, where gay marriage was celebrated in 2012, opens on Monday. A celebration of the new Confederate States of America Tower is also planned as Jefferson City, Mo., celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

Amid all this activity, on Monday, the state of Illinois eliminated cash bail for all criminal cases, marking a historic move in the war between judges and prisoners who accuse their peers of locking them up for no good reason. The end of cash bail means that suspects won’t have to raise money to bail themselves out if they can’t afford it, and is one small step in restoring the ability of a person to be presumed innocent until he or she proves otherwise, while encouraging public safety by ensuring speedy trials.

“An attempt to keep a person in jail is a manipulation of the system that devalues the life of the person charged,” said Magdalena Roller, the attorney general of Illinois, on the Senate floor Monday morning.

Despite the historic nature of the move, it might not have been possible without lawsuits in several states that have gone ahead and eliminated cash bail.

In Texas, Milwaukee and Washington, DC, state judges have declared cash bail unconstitutional and sought to apply the logic of Illinois’s new law. They argue that cash bail violates the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the First Amendment by putting the names of innocent suspects into the system because of their lack of resources. And the Constitution grants individuals the right to trial by an impartial jury, not judges.

More than half of the states in the country have now considered banning or setting lower bail for all criminal suspects, and Mississippi, the last state still to consider a bill of this kind, did just that Friday.

In Illinois, the state senate passed the bill on Monday, by an extremely narrow 15-14 vote, to become the first state to end cash bail. A House bill, which would limit the new law to certain cases, passed earlier this year. Governors from both parties in the legislature were needed to get the bill signed. On Monday, Governor Bruce Rauner was signed into law.

In Illinois, for example, thousands of detainees are stuck in jail every day, according to advocacy groups. State statistics show that over the past three fiscal years, Illinois spent more than $41 million incarcerating its inmates on bail.

Prosecutors say the new law could force the release of nonviolent offenders to public schools or jobs, because police aren’t willing to check in with the authorities if the suspect doesn’t have any cash. It will make it harder for police to catch repeat offenders, accused of stealing just $3 or breaking a $1,200 phone. And so-called “terrorists” or people with mental health problems will go unchecked.

Some lawmakers, including constitutional scholars, have called for alternative models of justice, like treating suspected criminals like commuters, allowing prosecutors to instead seek discretion over which individuals will be held in a felony case or a misdemeanor case, and which will be sent to probation.

One thing is certain. In Illinois, as in the other states across the country, without bail, the jury will decide who goes free and who goes to jail.

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