Advocates celebrate, cautiously optimistic about the end of cash bail
A dozen community leaders and clergy gathered on Monday outside of the Winnebago County Courthouse to mark the end of cash bond in Illinois.
Some carried signs that read “Release the Captives-signed Jesus, Luke 4-18,” and “Pretrial Fairness is Good News for the Poor.”
“Rockford Urban Ministries and our partners have come together in Winnebago County,” said Reverand Violet Johnicker, the pastor at Brooke Road United Methodist Church and Executive Director of Rockford Urban Ministries, “to celebrate this momentous occasion, this advancement in civil rights and work to reduce mass incarceration in our state.”
Advocates for the Illinois SAFE-T Act look to the challenges and work ahead of them as the end of cash bail went into effect this week. One of their tasks is to ensure the law is implemented as intended.
The people here are part of the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice. It’s a statewide coalition that since 2016, has worked to end money bond -- a policy they say perpetuates racial and economic injustices in the criminal legal system.
That’s the view of Pastor Steve Bowie of Third Presbyterian Church.
“We believe that people are innocent until proven guilty,” he said, “and these people have had the expense of being incarcerated, have lost a job, have lost their home, have lost a car have perhaps lost custody to their children.”
The coalition’s work culminated in the passing of the SAFE-T Act in 2021.
The Illinois Black Legislative Caucus spearheaded the legislation that encompasses reforms in policing, corrections and pretrial.
Among them was the end of cash bail under a segment called the Pretrial Fairness Act.
Pastor K. Edward Copeland of New Zion Baptist Church in Rockford said that’s long been a goal of those seeking equity in the court system.
“The ideal of this country,” he said, “is something that we fought for not just as the coalition has been together, but since the beginning of these yet to be United States - that money should not determine whether or not you have access to freedom, right, since you're innocent until proven guilty.”
The path to this moment has not been easy. The SAFE-T Act faced legal challenges from state’s attorneys and sheriffs across the state. The fight culminated in July with the Illinois Supreme Court ruling that indeed the law was constitutional.
The law was the target of misinformation and fearmongering during the 2022 election season. Republicangubernatorial nominee State Senator Darren Bailey said the law would usher in a purge, when criminals would be free to roam the streets.
The tone of the speakers at the gathering was a measured celebration, with a sense that it was still important to prepare for what challenges may lie in the near future.
Among them was State Representative Maurice West who cautioned that politics will continue to complicate the debate.
“With the 2024 election upon us, do know that critics will seek to find any justification to blame the ending of cash bail for any of our public safety issues moving forward,” West said. “Remember, that monumental change is often met with pushback, both good and bad. I ask that each of us utilize the power that we all possess, to decipher between the two.”
The press conference also served as a pep rally for the volunteers who would soon be sitting in court to observe the proceedings under no-cash bail.
Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford spoke words of encouragement to them.
“And thanks to the court watchers who are here today, and who'll be doing this to help make sure it happens and all those involved in trying to make this better,” Johnson said, “because we can do better. We can do better than locking people up because they can't pay their bills, which does nobody any good.”
Once the press conference wrapped up, the volunteers headed into the courthouse.