Illinois law eliminating cash bail upheld by state’s high court

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Illinois’ top court on Tuesday upheld a 2021 state law that eliminated cash bail and ordered that it take effect in September, clearing the way for the state to implement one of the most sweeping bail reforms in the nation.

The law, passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature and signed by Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, had been blocked after a judge found in December that it violated the state constitution.

Several other states, including New Jersey, New York and California, have taken steps to reduce the use of cash bail, in which defendants charged with certain offenses can pay money to secure their freedom until their trial begins.

Critics of cash bail say the system effectively creates a tiered justice system in which wealthy defendants remain free while poor arrestees spend months in jail.

Proponents, including many law enforcement officials, argue that bail ensures defendants show up in court and prevents dangerous criminals from returning to the streets while awaiting trial.

Prosecutors in dozens of Illinois counties filed lawsuits challenging the law, leading to the state Supreme Court’s 5-2 ruling on Tuesday, reversing the lower court’s decision.

“Our constitution creates a balance between the individual rights of defendants and the individual rights of crime victims,” Supreme Court Justice Mary Ann Theis wrote for the majority. “The act’s pretrial release provisions set forth procedures commensurate with that balance.”

Under the law, judges cannot set any bail, but they can order defendants charged with certain serious crimes to be jailed until trial if prosecutors can show they either pose a danger to the public or are likely to flee the state. Judges can also set conditions, such as house arrest, for defendants.

In a statement, Pritzer said, “We can now move forward with historic reform to ensure pre-trial detainment is determined by the danger an individual poses to the community instead of by their ability to pay their way out of jail.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Wallis)