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Illinois Begins Elimination of Cash Bail After Years of Debate

The long-sought reform took effect on Monday and abolished cash bail as a potential condition for release, changing the way pretrial hearings are conducted. State Republicans who mostly oppose the measure still have concerns about the legislation.

During a detention hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building Monday afternoon, an assistant state’s attorney argued to a judge that a defendant facing a felony weapons charge should be held in jail while awaiting trial.

“The defendant did in fact flee on foot while holding a handgun,” Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Sorrentino said. “He was seen on camera pointing the gun at an individual … the state’s position is that the defendant poses a real and present threat to safety.”

Assistant Public Defender Lillian McCartin, though, countered that the pod camera the prosecutor referenced had not been turned over to the defense. The prosecutor previously told the judge the state did not yet have the video.

“The state is relying totally on pod camera they do not possess,” McCartin said, arguing that the state had also not shown her client to be a flight risk.

The detention hearing was among the first in Cook County held after long-sought reforms took effect Monday, abolishing cash bail as a potential condition for release and changing the way pretrial hearings are conducted.

State lawmakers, Cook County officials and advocates who worked to pass bond reform legislation marked the first day of implementation with a news conference on the steps of the Leighton Criminal Courts Building Monday morning where they lauded what they said was a historic moment meant to create more equity in the criminal justice system. Illinois is the first state to fully eliminate cash bail, making it a closely watched national bellwether.

“Today, we end an antiquated and unjust system that has disproportionately harmed our communities of color and the poor,” said Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch. “We are one step closer to a detention system that puts victims first.”

Inside the courthouse, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and staff worked through the changes on the ground, using new paperwork and new guidelines for arguing cases and making decisions.

The detention hearing for the defendant facing the gun charge offered a glimpse into the new framework — which provides for hearings that last a little longer, with more tussling over the actual evidence in the earliest stage of a case.

In that case, Cook County Judge Susana Ortiz ordered the defendant released on electronic monitoring, denying the state’s petition for detention.

“I do believe electronic monitoring will suffice in securing the safety of the community and his appearance in court,” Ortiz said.

At the Southwest Side courthouse, dual court calls took place in the afternoon, one for the first appearance of defendants for whom prosecutors were not opposing release and another for individuals the state sought to detain.

In the detention hearings, defense attorneys scrutinized the information prosecutors presented about the basis for the charges as well as the arguments over whether the defendant meets criteria for being deemed a flight risk or a danger.

“There’s nothing about him fleeing from police, just some walking,” said Assistant Public Defender Tressa Palcheck in response to a proffer given for a stolen vehicle case in which the defendant was ultimately released on electronic monitoring.

In another case, Ortiz granted the state’s petition for detention for a defendant charged with a felony weapons charge and misdemeanor assault charge over the defense’s objection. Prosecutors alleged he pointed a loaded weapon at the victim.

“I do find that he does (pose a threat),” she said.

Across the hall in another courtroom, Judge Mary Marubio, head of the pretrial division, told the gallery that “these hearings today in this courtroom are to determine conditions of release,” noting that cases involving potential detention would happen in another room.

Throughout the afternoon, she oversaw cases involving weapons, allegations of assault, drunken driving and other matters, sometimes imposing additional conditions of release, such as turning over weapons, even if a defendant had a valid firearm owner’s identification card. Many of the defendants in the call were released with mandatory conditions such as appearing for subsequent court dates, while some were ordered to comply with additional requirements from the judge.

Domestic violence cases are handled separately in a dedicated court call.

The court calls drew larger audiences than usual, with interested stakeholders watching to see the law in action after years of debate, controversy, preparations and a court challenge.

During the morning news conference, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said her office “stands ready to implement the Pretrial Fairness Act.”

“We have seen over the course of the last two and a half years every trick of the trade to try to dissuade this moment and I would ask us why. What is so fearful about having a system that is fair and just,” she said. “What is so disarming about making sure that people are not detained because they are poor. What is it about the demographic that is impacted by this system that is so chilling to others throughout this state.”

Court staff in counties across the state adjusted to the new system. In Kane County, the courts saw a low level of cases, which helped ease the transition and make for a successful first day, said Kane County Chief Judge Clint Hull. There were six pretrial hearings, with four released at the outset and two that went for a detention hearing. Of those, the judge granted detention on one.

“The number of people before the judge this morning was substantially lower than what he normally sees,” Hull said. “It could be that there weren’t a lot of arrests last night, or it could be that police when arresting used their discretion to cite release, meaning there were less people in front of us today. Only time will tell on that.”

Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart said his office on the first day filed detention petitions for defendants charged with domestic battery, among other offenses. Court staff worked through the changes, with some slips in referencing the proceedings as bond court.

“This is all new to us,” Judge Raymond Collins said at one point as he presided over Monday’s hearings.

Politicians weighed in throughout the day. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson congratulated the General Assembly on passage of the law and said the previous way of doing things “has not led to safer communities.”

“I do know that there are individuals that have concerns about this particular piece of legislation and what this law means. What it really means is that people will not be held against their will because they don’t have the ability to pay for bail,” Johnson said. “Now, keep in mind that there is still autonomy that exists within the judicial branch. This is just not a free fall.”

Illinois Republicans who mostly opposed the measure spoke out citing concerns about the reforms.

In a statement, House Republican leader Tony McCombie, expressed an uneasiness about the new pretrial system, saying “the legal deck is stacked against the victim and community in favor of the criminal,” even though various victims’ rights groups support the new system.

“We can only hope that innocent victims’ lives are not the ultimate price we have to pay” with the new system, said McCombie, of Savanna.

State Sen. Terri Bryant, a Republican from Murphysboro, raised concerns that some residents in certain counties may have to pay higher taxes with the new pretrial system in place, which she worries has “logistical gaps the legislature has yet to fill in,” including for some victims’ services.

“Despite repeated Republican calls to address these many injustices, the Democratic majority refuses to address these serious safety and financial concerns,” she said in a video statement to reporters. “Now, tell me, does that sound fair to you?”

The Pretrial Fairness Act was part of a broad array of criminal justice reforms passed as part of the SAFE-T Act, signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2021, though lawmakers later amended the statute. Given the changes in how Illinois courts would operate, the measure was not slated to take effect until two years after the initial passage to give counties time to prepare.

But hours before it was set to be implemented on Jan. 1, the Illinois Supreme Court stayed the law to hear challenges from Illinois prosecutors who opposed the measure, contending that it violated the state’s constitution by infringing on the power of judges, among other arguments.

The high court upheld the law in a 5-2 decision in July, finding that the constitution “does not mandate that monetary bail is the only means to ensure criminal defendants appear for trials or the only means to protect the public.”

In addition to removing money as a possible condition for release from jail while awaiting trial, the law makes changes meant to even the playing field for defendants and defense attorneys early in the trial process.

In order for a defendant to be jailed while awaiting trial, prosecutors must file a petition that shows the individual is a danger to the public or a flight risk. Judges will hear the cases in detention hearings, which will be longer than the sometimes minutes-long former bond hearings. Defense attorneys will have an opportunity to call witnesses.

Defendants who prosecutors do not seek to detain will have an “initial appearance” hearing, where judges will determine what conditions are necessary for release.

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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