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Illinois is now the first state to eliminate cash bail


Starting today, judges in Illinois can no longer order people accused of crimes to pay money to get out of jail while awaiting trial. A handful of states have eased rules around cash bail, but Illinois is the first to ban it completely. Studies show that cash bail disproportionately affects Black, Latino and low-income people. Chip Mitchell with member station WBEZ in Chicago has our story.

CHIP MITCHELL, BYLINE: Two years of intense public debate culminated this summer when the Illinois Supreme Court rejected constitutional challenges to the law. Today criminal courts across the state are doing away with what they used to call bond hearings.

MARY MARUBIO: At 12:30 will be what we call initial appearance hearings.

MITCHELL: On a recent panel, Cook County Circuit Judge Mary Marubio laid out plans for courthouses she helps oversee. She said judges will hold in-depth hearings on whether releasing a defendant would pose a safety threat or flight risk.

MARUBIO: Not too different from how we release people now. It's just that money will no longer be a condition of release.

LAVETTE MAYES: I'm excited. I feel like a baby has been born.

MITCHELL: That's Lavette Mayes. She's been organizing against cash bail since her own criminal case that started with a 2015 fight with a family member. Mayes was charged with aggravated battery.

MAYES: My bail was set at 250,000, 25,000 to walk. I couldn't afford that bond.

MITCHELL: She spent more than a year in jail awaiting trial. A judge eventually lowered the bond, and she took a plea agreement. But she says she lost her home and livelihood. And the jail time was rough on her two kids. Today, as Illinois ends money bond, Mayes says she's relieved.

MAYES: I feel like a load has been lifted because we finally got something that's going to help the Black and brown community. Now I can sleep knowing that people just won't be able to be sent back to jail because they can't afford to pay bail.

MITCHELL: In suburban DuPage County, State's Attorney Bob Berlin is not celebrating. He and most other county prosecutors in Illinois opposed the law's initial version, even after he worked on amendments that toughened the law. Berlin says it still doesn't give judges enough discretion to jail pre-trial defendants, but he's actually expecting a smooth transition this week.

BOB BERLIN: We're all professionals. We all have an obligation to follow the law whether we agree with it or not.

MITCHELL: Advocates are worried that judges will be skittish about freeing defendants without cash bail and could increasingly rely on ordering home detention with electronic bracelets as a substitute. A state agency is rolling out a new electronic monitoring program for defendants in 70 Illinois counties. That's not going over well with the Cook County Public Defender's Office, which represents defendants who can't afford to pay for a lawyer. Assistant public defender Colleen Gorman told reporters last week her clients who work in trades like construction might lose their jobs.


COLLEEN GORMAN: The electronic monitoring program requires that every week, a few days before, they submit a letter from their boss saying what their hours are going to be that week and what locations they will be at. We know this is impossible. A plumber doesn't know whose plumbing is going to go out next week.

MITCHELL: Some research suggests that curtailing reliance on cash bail has had a minimal effect on public safety. That was the finding of a Loyola University Chicago study of four parts of the country. Starting today, all eyes will be on Illinois. For NPR News, I'm Chip Mitchell in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTH LAGOON'S "DOLL'S ESTATE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Chip Mitchell
Based at WBEZ’s studio on Chicago’s West Side, Chip focuses on policing, gun violence and underground business. His investigative and narrative work has earned dozens of local and national honors. In 2017, 2015 and 2013, the Chicago Headline Club (the nation’s largest Society of Professional Journalists chapter) gave him its annual award for “best reporter” in broadcast radio.