By Kim Geiger
Low-level offenders who have been arrested and can't come up with enough money to get out of jail can get a rehearing of their bail amount, under a plan signed into law Friday by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Known as the Bail Reform Act, the new law creates new rights for people in custody at Illinois jails and aims to move away from requiring people charged with relatively minor crimes to post cash bail as a condition of their release.
The legislation reflects a general consensus among criminal justice advocates, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, and Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx that the state's cash bail system is unfair to poor people.
Under the previous law, many nonviolent, low-level offenders were spending weeks or months in jail because they couldn't come up with the 10 percent down payment that's required in order to be released. In 2015, for example, more than 1,000 inmates in the Cook County Jail had served more time in custody than they were ultimately sentenced to serve, according to Dart's office.
The new law specifies that cash bail is not necessary for people who are in custody for a nonviolent misdemeanor or low-level felony, such as theft, prostitution, driving under the influence or drug possession.
Instead, there will be a presumption that any bail set in connection with those categories of crimes shouldn't be monetary. Other options include electronic home monitoring, curfews, drug counseling, stay-away orders and in-person reporting.
And if a judge sets monetary bond for a person in custody who is unable to come up with the money, a rehearing on the bail must be held within seven days under the new law.
"What this does is provide fairness to folks who really are just struggling to make ends meet, commit a minor offense and should not be forced to languish in jail," Rauner said at a signing ceremony at the Chicago Baptist Institute International on the South Side.
Much credit for the legislation was given to Willie Wilson, the former mayoral and presidential candidate, who lawmakers and Rauner hailed as being instrumental in advocating for the changes. Wilson last year bailed six strangers out of jail on a single day as part of what he called a "Good Samaritan Bond Pilot Project" to help inmates who've been charged with misdemeanors but can't afford to pay.
Notably absent at the bill signing ceremony was Dart, who launched a campaign last fall against the cash-bail system.
Cara Smith, senior policy officer for Dart, said the sheriff's office was unhappy that the bill didn't include provisions to make it harder for dangerous offenders with access to cash to get out of jail.
A Tribune analysis of five years of booking data at Cook County Jail found that the jail has become a revolving door for people who have been arrested multiple times on felony weapons charges, and who can easily post bond with suspected gang money. Dart's office was seeking to make it harder for them to bond out in addition to making it easier for low-level offenders, Smith said.
"The bill that was signed today was a product of a working group and lots of negotiations, and we thought that it should have addressed the violent offenders," Smith said, noting that the legislation emerged only in the final days of the legislative session. "We were sorry it didn't go further and certainly hope that the momentum we saw this session for reform will continue, going forward."
Still, the signing ceremony offered a rare opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to tout an achievement that's come out of gridlocked Springfield.
"This bill, when it becomes law, is going to make Illinois a national leader in bail reform," said Rep. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago. "We will now be the largest state to have a presumption against using monetary bail. We are no longer going to lock somebody up because they're poor."
The legislation also provides for a five-year extension of the Illinois Street Gang and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Law, which was set to expire later this month.
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