Serving for three decades as a Chicago police officer, I saw that our state’s cash bail system is not serving justice. Money bail wastes resources on low priority cases and funnels low-risk individuals into overcrowded jails. Fortunately, our legislators are likely to vote this week on the Pretrial Fairness Act, a landmark bill that would end cash bail and improve safety for communities across our state.
We can all agree that public resources should prioritize serious cases, but that’s not the reality on the ground. Any veteran patrol officer can tell you that most of our time is spent on low-level issues.
One of the greatest misallocations of justice system resources is our cash bail system, which fills our jails with people waiting for their case to be heard. A 2018 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority found that almost 90% of the Illinois jail population was being detained simply because they could not afford to post bail.
The bail system focuses on money rather than public safety. If you have the money for bail, you can buy your way out until your case is heard. If you are struggling financially, even if you are unlikely to commit another crime or skip your court date, you may sit in jail for weeks or months unless you give up and plead guilty.
This system made my job harder as a police officer. It filled the jail with people who pose little public safety risk, instead of leaving law enforcement time, court resources, and jail space to prioritize serious cases. Cash bail also appears to increase crime — research shows that people held pretrial are more likely to commit future crimes, since jail often costs them employment, housing, and other stabilizers that prevent crime. Sitting in jail, they cannot take responsibility for personal change by accessing treatment, counseling, or health services in the months before their case is heard. This puts them at further disadvantage when they finally do go before the judge.
The cash bail system also pushes children down the wrong path by separating them from their parents. Research shows that parental incarceration puts children at higher risk of committing crimes, falling victim to abuse, developing mental health issues, and giving up on school. The cash bail system breeds crime across generations.
We can improve public safety by supporting the Pretrial Fairness Act, which will abolish cash bail. Individuals who pose little threat to public safety will be released pretrial, regardless of their financial means, while those whose actions show a real public safety risk will be held. I am encouraged to hear that our state legislators are likely to vote on the Act in the special session this week.
Passing the Pretrial Fairness Act would put Illinois in good company. New Jersey and Washington, DC, have already passed similar reforms, basing pretrial decisions on whether someone needs to be held for public safety reasons, not on the contents of their wallet. These reforms have stopped wealth-based incarceration without negative impacts on courts. A report by the New Jersey Courts shows that their rates of failure-to-appear and reoffending have remained consistent since reform.
I believe that Illinois needs to eliminate the cash bail system now with the Pretrial Fairness Act, and I’m not the only one. A recent survey shows that 59% of Illinois voters support replacing the cash bail system with a safety-based system built on a presumption of pretrial release. Now is the time for our legislators to lead by eliminating cash bail to create a more effective criminal justice system that truly serves justice.
Officer David Franco (Ret.) served for three decades with the Chicago Police Department. He is an Adjunct Criminal Justice Instructor at Wilbur Wright College and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.